COMING SOON: The 3rd Stan Riddman crime thriller in the series.
COMING SOON: The 2nd Stan Riddman crime thriller in the series.
“What the hell am I doing?” Jackson Pollack asked himself, giving the once over to the rise of the road, driving up too fast toward the top of it for what was on the other side. He couldn’t dope it out. He was driving like a crazy man, like what all the shrinks he had ever gone to always told him he wasn’t.
Not crazy, not exactly.
One of them once said, “You’re just in search of a nervous breakdown.” He didn’t tell that one about 1938. It didn’t matter. He knew he was raw on the inside. That’s why the work on the floor worked. He wasn’t a nutcase because he saw psychiatrists. But in the last five minutes he had twice caught himself steering the car straight at the soft shoulder.
He was the next-best driver in Springs, next to Harry Cullum, who told him he was second best on a late afternoon one day in mid-winter when the two of them were having beers at Jungle Pete’s.
“You’ll have the last laugh, just wait and see, Jack,” he said, clapping him on the back. “Maybe not on the road, but you’ll get ‘er done.”
Jackson Pollock’s convertible didn’t have seat belts, even though Harry, the best driver in town, had outfitted his family car with lap belts. He told everyone it was for his wife’s sake. “In stock car racing we never used seat belts if there wasn’t a roll bar, suicide if you do,” said Harry. “Family life is different, different kind of suicide, need a belt.”
The girl in the middle of the front seat, between Ruth and him, was screaming. “Stop the car, let me out, let me out!” He wasn’t going to stop the car, he knew that, but he had a bad feeling. It was a clear, starry night, splashed no moon dark, hot and muggy. The road felt spongy. He felt queer, not himself, not yours truly.
It was August 11, 1956. The car was an Oldsmobile 88. It was a big open-air carriage.
He got his first convertible, a Cadillac, when his action paintings started to get some action, after Life Magazine put him on the cover almost exactly seven years ago. He was wearing denim pants and a denim jacket in the photograph. The jacket was dirty and spattered. It was his high-octane light-of-day look at me now ma year of success. They said he was the new phenomenon of American art.
“He looks like some guy who works at a service station pumping gas,” said Willem de Kooning.
When 1950 got good and done, the next month Art News published a list of the best exhibitions of the year. The top three shows belonged to him. It wasn’t bad for somebody who never graduated from high school.
Even though he purposely used to throw his car keys in the bushes when he was getting drunk at parties, he smashed the Caddy into a tree. He got off light, a citation and no broken bones.
Action painting, he thought, and snorted, spraying spit on the steering wheel. What the hell did that mean? There wasn’t any action, just headlines.
What critics didn’t know wasn’t worth a pot to piss in. “If people would just look at my paintings, I don’t think they would have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers, you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” He had meant it when he said it. He’d say it again.
Who needs a critic to find out what art is, or isn’t? Most of them, these days, if they saw him walking on water, crossing the Hudson River at Canal Street, would scribble something about him not being able to swim. All they wanted was to see you drown. The only time he met Man Ray, at the Cedar Tavern when the born-again Frenchman was on his way back to Paris, he told Jackson, over a boatload of drinks, he hated critics.
Franz Kline laughed across the table. “Manny, tell us what you really think.”
“All critics should be assassinated,” he said.
Lee called his work all over painting because he got it all over the flat canvases nailed down on the floor, the hard floor, and his boots and jeans and hands. Bugs and bits of litter and blackened shag from his cigarettes fell into the paint.
“Is Jackson Pollock the greatest living painter in the United States?” is what Life Magazine said, blowing the balloon up, with a picture of him slouching against a wall with a smoke dangling from his mouth, and a couple of pictures of his paintings. He looked good, like he didn’t have a care in the world, didn’t give a damn, like he had the world by the balls. Now it was different. He hadn’t made a painting in more than a year. The ball was over.
He was washed up. He didn’t have anything to say anymore. He was almost sure of it.
“She started to scream,” said Clement Greenberg. “He took it out on this pathetic girl by going even faster. Then he lost control on the curve. The screaming is what did the killing, finally.”
What was her name? He chewed it over in his mind, tossing a glance sideways at her. He couldn’t remember. They were on the Fireplace Road in East Hampton, not far from home. It couldn’t be more than a mile. Not much of a home anymore, though. Lee was in Paris with her friends. She said she was coming back, but he had his fears. He wanted her back, but it had all gone to hell.
Hell-bent in his Olds with two broads in the car and his wife in Europe wasn’t going to get it done, wasn’t going to get it all back. He had to get back on track. Maybe the last analyst he’d seen was right, maybe there was something gumming up the works. He was going to try a fresh approach, the shrink said, calling it hypnotherapy.
He was one of the new downtown brain doctors. “It’s not hypnosis, at least not how most people think of it,” said Dr. Sam Baird. “We’re not going to try to alter or correct your behavior. We’ll try to seed some ideas, sure, but we’ll talk those out before we go ahead.”
He told Lee he was going to get his mind clear this time. “He isn’t full of old-time shit,” he said about the new man.
If any of his neighbors saw his car fast and sloppy staggering down the road they would laugh and say it was like his paintings. Most of them still thought he was nuts, even though they didn’t say so anymore to his face, now that he was in galleries and museums. When he was a nobody, they looked down on him like he was a nobody.
“I could see right away he wasn’t from here,” said Frank Dayton. “I asked a fellow later who he was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s just a loony artist.’”
“To some goody-goody people he was a bum, just someone to laugh at,” said Sid Miller. “They didn’t think much of his work. They didn’t think he was doing anything.”
“Folks said he painted with a broom,” said Ed Cook. “Near everybody made jokes about his paintings, never thought they’d amount to anything.”
“To hell with them,” he said to Ruth, her elbow laying careless on the shelf of the door. She was a looker, that’s for sure, the juice he needed to get him going again. He had gone dead inside. He knew he had. She was the kind of girl who could crank him up. What’s-her-name in the back seat kept screaming.
“What?” asked Ruth, loud, twisting towards him.
“To hell with them,” he muttered to himself. “What do they know?”
“Slow down a little bit, the car’s a little out of control, take it easy,” she said.
The joke was on them. When he was painting, straddling a canvas, it was when he was most in control. It was when he didn’t have any doubts about himself or what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing. He told anybody interested in listening to him, I can control the idea, the flow of paint. There is no accident in the end, not by my hand.
“He picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas,” said Hans Namuth. “It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished, His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white and rust-colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there. Finally, he said, ‘This is it.’”
I work from the inside out, he told Hans. That’s when I’m in the painting, in the middle of life, but outside of it at the same time. I can see the whole picture. Someone told him his pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, more like a sneer, but it was fine by him. It was a fine compliment. Only twisted lip didn’t know it.
He was good driving his Olds, too, even when he was as drunk as could be, which was what he was now.
“He came in for his eye-opener, a double, about 10:30 before train time, that day.” said Al Cavagnaro. “Start your day the way he did sometimes, you’d be in the same fix he was. If you said he was half bagged up, you’d be about right.”
Doc Klein said it was OK for him to drink and drive. Jack liked that. He knew trees never hit cars except in self-defense. “But stay on the road,” said Doc Klein, a big man laughing a big laugh.
“Goddamn right, I always stay on the road,” said Jackson Pollack. “Except when I’m pulling into Al’s or Pete’s, then I get off the road. I have to. Anyway, there’s no trees in those parking lots.”
“It was continual, almost nightly drunken large parties,” said Patsy Southgate. “Everyone was totally drunk all the time and driving around in cars.”
He wasn’t driving right. He was driving wrong. The screaming girl grabbing his right arm was right. He lived it up driving. But tonight, instead of fluid with the steering wheel, like he was with free-flowing paint out of a can, he was going clumsy, as though he was at cross-purposes, herky-jerky. The quiet precise gestures he used to stream paint from a stick when he was working were usually the same when he drove his car. Tonight, they were too big around, whiplash gestures, like they had a life of their own.
“He had to be moving fast, 85 to 90, anyway,” said Harry Cullum. “There was one hell of a crown where the town tar road begins at the beginning of the left curve. Jeez, I almost lost my car a couple of times there when I was a kid, but finally you smarten up and ride that crown, the one they fixed after Pollock got killed.”
It was after the fact, like an empty bottle of beer thrown out a car window at a stop sign that wasn’t there.
“Jackson’s death is he died of drink and the Town of East Hampton Highway Department,” said Wayne Barker.
It was three years ago, the first week of November, when he stormed over the crown of the road like a firecracker. He came back from the city on Friday, on the train. It snowed all morning and it was still snowing at the end of the day when he found his car in the lot, brushing a mound of snow off the front window with his hands, rubbing the cold out of them at the car’s dashboard heating vent. When he finally got on the road to Springs, he was one of a handful of cars. The storm was blowing off the ocean. The car trembled whenever the road flattened out and he was sideways to the coast.
“I crawled up there, could barely see, and stopped when I saw the pile of snow,” he told Lee later at home, the windows in their sash frames rattling in the wind gusts. “There was a snowdrift, five feet, six feet high, down the other side blocking the way. I backed up a little, to where my rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road and hit the gas as hard as I could. I went as fast as I could, hit the snow head on, everything went white, everything disappeared, no color, just white. By the time I came out the other side the Olds was barely moving, just crawling.”
They laughed about it all night, over dinner, and later in bed again, curling close together under a pile of blankets.
The girl beside him was still screaming. How long could she keep it up? She was driving him nuts. He was driving wrong, all wrong. There was a reason. He knew it, but he also thought, how could there be a reason? What was it? He could feel it. Where was it? He knew it was right there, right at the edge of the front of his brain. It was like the images behind the abstractions in his paintings, right there. But when he tried to think of why he was driving wrong his brain hurt like the next day’s hangover, before getting his hands on some hair of the dog.
He had a hangover all the time now, more than five years-worth of hangovers, but it wasn’t from gin. It was from having rocketed to fame, putting everything he had into it, until he didn’t have anymore, and he quit pouring liquid paint cold turkey. It was all over. After that he couldn’t make a painting that anybody wanted. When he finished his black paintings, he couldn’t give them away. Even his fame couldn’t prime the pump. Nobody thought it was any good.
He knew they weren’t any good.
“An artist is a person who has invented an artist,” Rosenberg burst out with something that meant something one night near the tail end of a long night of poker and drinking.
Rosie always thought he was right, Jackson thought. He got it wrong on the train, though, the day we were riding into the city together. When I said the canvas was an arena, I meant it like it was a living thing, not a dead thing. I didn’t mean slugging it out in the ring. He thought I meant it literally, even though both of us were dead sober at the time, and the next thing I knew I was an action painter.
At least he finally got it right at the card game. Not like Hans. He was like all the others.
When Lee brought her teacher, Hans Hoffman, over to meet Jackson, he saw the sour look on the great man’s face right away. Hans was a neat freak, everything in its place, clean and orderly. His own studio was a mess. There wasn’t a sign of a still life or a life model anywhere.
“You do not work from nature,” said Hans. “You work by heart, not from nature This is no good, you will repeat yourself.”
“I am nature,” said Jackson Pollack.
There wasn’t a drop of a map left in the sky or anywhere on the other side of his windshield. It surprised the breath out of him when he got to the curve at the dip, where the concrete stopped and the town’s blacktop started, and he suddenly veered off the road, aiming for the trees. The car skidded in the sand. He let it slide, its big front-end dead set on the big oak tree to their left.
Going into a skid in the dirt off the road didn’t surprise him. Besides, he was going too fast. He was going fast, that’s all. It didn’t mean anything. The girl next to him stopped screaming. She got small and slowed down. She was squeezing her handbag in her hands with all her might. His hands felt dry and relaxed on the steering wheel. He didn’t squeeze the steering wheel even when he smashed into the tree head-on.
The Oldsmobile broke every bone in its chassis when it hit the one-hundred-year-old tree. Jackson Pollack was catapulted over the windshield and into the woods. The front end flipped over, tossing Ruth to the side. When the car landed upside down, crushing the frame of the windshield, the girl with the handbag tight in her hands suddenly stopped gripping it. The car horn blared, stuck, crazed. Gasoline poured out of the punctured gas tank. The taillights blinked on and off and on and off.
“I’m going to be one of my paintings,” Jackson Pollack realized in mid-air, midway to the future, rocketing his way to forever. “I’m going to splatter all over. I’m going to be in nature, be nature, once and for all.”
He hit the oak tree hard. When he careened back, he landed with a mortal thud, even though it was soft ground. There was a just barely jutting out of the ground bump of rock mottled with luminous moss waiting there a lifetime for him.
His neck hit the rock like a falling star. Gravity had been the heaven-sent hand that gave life to the paint and flotsam that dripped splashed flowed down onto his canvasses. It was now the hand that dealt him a death blow. He broke his neck.
He lay there like a tree branch, cracked in the stick, shoeless, arms and legs haphazard.
When Stan Riddman walked up from the guts of the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, not new dark yet. The sky was lemon and pale blue. It was the first day of the second week of fall, but felt more like the middle of summer, except for the shorter autumn days. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots.
He gave his wallet a friendly pat. The seven-card stud they played in the basement next to the furnace room had been good to him. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series, he thought.
The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not down in the underground. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, making it out like it was exploitive, if they had ever come to power. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it. You deserved to be taken if you played dreamland cards.
He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth
The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going hard at the Braves out in the boondocks. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.
Last year it went seven games, and the oddball thing was the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, either, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.
Nobody but Stan and Ezra, and anybody else who flipped a coin.
Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra Aronson. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankees fan, after Stan had gotten him the black and white’s he needed to get his divorce done, gave a sudden pair of passes to him, so they were on the wrong side.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ezra said, sitting in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans.
When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightning-fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon.
Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Back in his day, when he still had legs, he had been a good but streaky ballplayer. Good glove, fair bat, fast feet.
“I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.
When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout, he looked like a cross of the scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.
Stan and Ezra were the only men in their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Sandy Amoros snagged Yogi Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited there were hard feelings, and Stan had to drag him away to a beer stand.
“This beer is bitter,” Ezra scowled, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, flashing “Purity, Body, Flavor.” Whenever a Yankee hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!”
The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. Their scoreboard boasted a Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement.
“Hit Sign Win Suit”.
“That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine and spitting.
Stan Riddman didn’t have a home borough, even though he favored the Bums. He had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new Polish wife two boys two girls two dogs and all their belongings a year later to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.
Stan wasn’t working on anything he thought would bring him free Series passes this year. As long as I put most of this away, he thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight, and still have enough for ballgames and more card games.
Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend. That happened about as often as the Series. It wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.
He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang once almost twice before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.
“Hey, Vee, it’s Stan.”
“Stan, my man,” she laughed.
“How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.
“Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.
“How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”
“Stan, I love you for the dear German or Polack or whatever you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-eared investigator like me will look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”
“All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I going to find you? And if I do, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do bump into each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some of the time and not the rest of the time.”
“We can always take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat, it’ll be quiet there,” he said.
“Chew the fat? What it is I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know.”
“I’ll take that for a yes.”
“Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said gaily. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”
“Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a low-pitched spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”
“Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.
Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or an even earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A titanic painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their offspring being eaten at the tables below them, while another room was a temple of colorful beer steins.
There was a beer garden in the back.
“Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side. “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”
“No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He often said he wasn’t afraid of death. He had firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.
“Did he say he was coming back?”
“He did say that, but I haven’t seen him yet,” said Frank.
“How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s a long time, too, since World War One.
“He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”
“You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’
“Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia. “I’m an American now.”
Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.
“I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”
“I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did the thing to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”
“Do you know who they are?’
“No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra, is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it. He doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet, but that doesn’t matter.”
“You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”
“He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know Betty, though. She’ll piece it together.”
After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek. Vicki shook her head no.
“How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.
“I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.
They hailed a Checker Cab.
“Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.
The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her loose breezy walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.
One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had a half-dozen inflamed pencil-thick pencil-long scratches down one side of his face and more of them on his forehead. Small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink adorned the left sleeve of his t-shirt. The older dirtier dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line to below his right ear.
Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker.’ He kept his attention on LAMF.
“Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.
They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite easy pickings was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.
“Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip.
“You writing a book, or what?”
Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.
“East Harlem, where you think?”
“Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only some cents.”
“The extra is for in case we get lost.”
“It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “
“I mean to get my twenty, and maybe more,” he said, smiling smirking mean, reaching into his back pocket.
Stan took a fast step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab using his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.
“Go,” he said. “Go right now.”
The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.
Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away.
“The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.
“The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again,” said Stan.
He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, what you’re doing, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”
He took Vicki by the arm, shoved the teenager to the side, and they walked away.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”
“I know,” said Stan. “But they were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”
“They were just kids.”
“You saw the scratches on the face of the kid who ran away.”
“Of course, the whole side of his face was gruesome.”
“The Seven Saints have an initiation to get into the club,” Stan said. “They find a stray cat and tie him to a telephone pole, about head high, and leave the cat’s four feet free. The kid getting initiated has his hands tied behind his back and he gets to become a Seven Saint if he can kill the cat, using his head as a club.”
“Oh, my God!” Vicki gasped, stopping dead in her tracks. “How do you even know that?”
“I make it my business to know, so I don’t get taken by surprise.”
Stan paused, then said, “I didn’t want them near me. I don’t give a damn about them. I care about you, Dottie, Ezra, Betty, the crew, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards. Throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink with you, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore.”
They passed the USS Maine Monument.
“I don’t want greaser punks in my face.”
They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.
“Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”
“Ballistic?” she asked.
“Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”
“I wish we had a rocket to take us upstairs” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”
“Another time,” he said.
At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.
Hey, watch out for my stockings,” she cried out. Vicki was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”
Mr. Moto skidded to a sudden stop a whisker from her leg.
“That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to rub his head.
The big cat arched his back and purred.
Tony de Marco had a pounding headache. It started the minute he stood up from an unsound sleep, and it bothered him through breakfast. It bothered him walking to the newsstand to get his copy of the Daily Mirror. It bothered him as he rode the train to Ebbets Field.
He couldn’t shake it off. His head shaking even slightly made it worse. It felt like his brain had gotten too big for his head, like it was swollen. He closed his eyes. He tried to read the tabloid, but he couldn’t concentrate. He closed his eyes again. Five minutes later he was getting some shuteye, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train.
He woke up when his stop was called. He felt a little better. He knew he wouldn’t miss his station when he dozed off, which is why he could doze off. He never missed it, even though his hearing was bad. It was like his brain screened out the talk of the passengers but was primed to hear the voice of the PA system.
“Goddamn that Robert Moses,” he cursed, getting off the train, crossing Bedford Avenue, seeing the ballpark come into sight.
Everybody knew somebody was going to have to blow up the Moses limo before the Dodgers ever got a new stadium. Ebbets Field was the smallest park in the National League. The seats were bad. The toilets were bad. There was practically no parking anywhere. Even sold-out games didn’t help, although they helped. The Atlantic Yards was where the team wanted to go. But Moses wanted them to move to a city-owned stadium in Queens. Robert Moses was the city’s all-powerful mover and shaker. If anybody could make it happen, he could make it happen.
That wasn’t going to happen. “We’re the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the Queens Dodgers,” the boss said. No one wanted to be a Queen Bum.
Walter O’Malley was determined to get a bigger ballpark somewhere else. He’d been planning it for ten years. They were already playing seven or eight of their home games at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. They’d played the first one there almost two weeks ago, edging the Phillies by a run. The stink of relocating was in the air. O’Malley was going to face Moses down. There was no doubt about it.
The big man was going to move the team, that was for almost sure, maybe move out of Brooklyn, maybe even move to the west coast, even though there wasn’t a team anywhere west of Kansas City. It would be like moving to the moon.
“Jeez, Jersey City, already!” and Tony spat on the sidewalk.
King Hanky-Panky of Jersey City was gone, he wasn’t the mayor anymore, but his gang was still running things, and he was still living like a millionaire. Anybody who said anything about it to him was told he was a rotten commie. Then he was thrown out of town.
The drive to the ballpark was terrible. There were no shoulders on the Pulaski Skyway over the Hackensack and Passaic rivers and the breakdown lane was in the middle of the bridge. Everybody called it the suicide lane. They were finally building a concrete median this summer to put a stop to the head-on accidents. Once you got over the bridge it smelled like soap and perfume, especially the closer downwind you got to the Colgate Plant on Hudson Street.
It was the first day of May. It was sunny, in the low 50s, the sky far away. By the time they got to work on the field it might hit 60. The team was in Cincy playing the Redlegs. The grounds crew had the rest of the week and more to get the home field in tip-top shape. After that it was rule the roost games the rest of the month.
Tony de Marco walked past the ballpark, crossed Flatbush Avenue, and walked into Prospect Park. He had a half-hour to kill. When he got to the shoreline opposite Duck Island, he found a bench and sat down, looking out over the water. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a Ronson lighter from his jacket pocket. His headache wasn’t any worse. It was probably a little better. He hoped so.
“L & M filters are just what the doctor ordered!” is what the ads said. Maybe a smoke would make him feel better. He leaned back and lit up, watching ducks and a line of ducklings, all waddling into the water. One of the mallards stayed on the shore, sideways, keeping that side of his eyes on him.
There was a wall of six and seven-foot-tall butterfly bushes flanking and to the back of his bench. In the summer, once it got hot and the red lilac-like flowers bloomed, the bushes attracted butterflies and hummingbirds. Now that the ducks were back, he would have to remember to bring a bag of stale bread to the park.
Tony sometimes ate lunch in Prospect Park when the team was on the road. When they were at home there was too much work to do. He was on the gang that rolled the tarpaulin out when rainstorms loomed, like everyone else, and he had his assigned work, but he didn’t do any mowing. The head groundskeeper made sure the grass was cut everyday if the team was in town. He might cut the infield grass shorter than usual if a bunt happy team was on the schedule. When Jackie Robinson had been faster than just about anybody the grass was kept long and the dirt in front of home plate watered down for him.
The Colored Comet’s first ever hit for the Dodgers had been a bunt single.
One of Tony’s jobs was laying the foul lines, the coaching boxes, and batting boxes. Jackie Robinson stole home plate two and three times a year. Tony made sure the chalk line from third base to home was straight as an arrow.
He took a drag and felt better. He would have to tell the doc about his headaches. He had been able to help him with his bad dreams without shock treatments or talking about combat fatigue and the rest of the psycho crap. He knew most of the VA shrinks yakked it up about hostility and neurosis aroused by war. They didn’t know anything about winter in Korea that never stopped and mud frozen solid. They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. They didn’t know how goddamned horrible it was.
He was lucky to have found Doc Baird, although when he thought about it, it was more like Doc Baird had found him. He couldn’t remember exactly how it happened. Besides the ear doctor in Japan, who told him he had lost some of his hearing, Doc Baird was the only doctor he had talked to the past three years who made sure to face his good ear when they were talking.
“They didn’t have earplugs or nothing for us,” Tony told the doctor.
“They’d say, you just have to live with it. Put paper or cotton in your ears. They didn’t care about us. I had to go to a MASH hospital one time. There was something wrong with me. I thought it might have been pneumonia. That night they brought in a bunch of guys who’d been in a firefight, crying and hollering, all mangled up. I couldn’t stand it. I left and hitchhiked back to my outfit.”
The ducklings swam in a broken line behind the drab-feathered mother duck, who was putting up a racket to keep her brood together and safe. He had once seen a turtle rise up and gobble down a duckling. It was gone just like that.
“When did you serve in Korea?” asked Doctor Baird.
“I was there from the start, at Inchon. I got drafted in 1949, right after I turned 21, when the new law said everybody over 18 had to register. I didn’t have any luck. Only ten thousand guys got drafted that whole year and I was one of them. I didn’t want to go. My doctor wrote them a letter saying I had a bad back and you can’t use him. My boss wrote a letter saying we can’t spare him, we need him for the work team, but they didn’t listen to nothing.”
“You didn’t want to join up?”
“No, but when my number was finally up, I went down to the draft board. There was a big Marine there. He got us all lined up. He’d hit a guy in the chest. Marine! A couple more guys, he would hit another one in the chest. Marine! When he got to me, he looked me up and down, and went to the next guy. He didn’t want me. I weighed under 140 pounds then. They pushed me into the Army for two years and sent me to Fort Dix. We had a newspaper there, the Stars and Stripes. It said, ‘Fort Dix Turns Out Killers’. They called us killers. I didn’t know what it was all about. I wasn’t mad at anybody. I wasn’t a killer.”
The ducks dipped their heads underwater as they swam, scooping up plants and insects. The drake on the shoreline walked off looking for land bugs. Waddling away he twisted his head around and grunted, then whistled at Tony. He didn’t hear the whistle, just like he barely heard birdsongs, if they went into his bad ear.
“You lost most of your hearing in the one ear while you were in the artillery?”
“A lot in the one ear, yeah. I wasn’t supposed to be in that racket, but that’s what happened,” said Tony.
“Most of the guys I trained with went to Europe. Three squads of us got sent to Korea. I had to fly to Seattle, wait thirty days, and then they put us on a ship across the Pacific, which took another twenty days. When we landed in Yokohama, we said, maybe we’ll just stay in Japan, but the next thing I knew I was landing at Inchon in a barge. That whole town was blown to bits.
“I was trained for the infantry, but after we landed, they said, we have enough infantry guys, we need guys in the artillery. They sent me to the 37th Field Artillery Battalion, the Second Division. They gave us a patch for our sleeve with a star and an Indian on it. We used to say, ‘Second to None!’ Right away they put me on a gun section, and we got orders for a fire mission. We had twelve guns, 105’s, loud, just boom, boom, boom. When it was over and guys were talking, I only saw lips moving. I couldn’t hear a damn thing for a half hour, right off the bat, the first time. I wasn’t used to that kind of noise.”
“How did you get captured?” asked Doctor Baird.
“What happened, after about four months, after Inchon, they said, you’ve got infantry training, right, we’re going to make you a forward observer, so I had go back to the infantry. My job was to tell our guys where to shoot the stuff. If there were ten thousand gooks in the open, we’d say, shoot the stuff that explodes in the air. It would rain down on those guys, the shrapnel getting them. Other times it was quick shells, the kind that explode the instant they hit the ground, or delays, the kind that stick in the ground and blow up later.”
“You were fighting the North Koreans?”
“No, we were fighting the Chinese, tough, small, always blowing bugles, padded up in quilt coats. They knew how to stay warm, not like us, with the summer outfits MacArthur sent us. They were good with mortars. If a round landed in front of you, and right away another landed behind you, we always said, get the hell out of the middle. There wasn’t anything but hills in Korea. We would lob over the hills when the infantry was going up one side to take it. We tried to shoot over them, down on the gooks, but sometimes it would land on our own guys.”
It was friendly fire gone unfriendly.
“That’s what happened to me and my buddy. We got caught up in some wire. You always had to watch for incoming rounds. As long as you heard a whistle, you’re OK. The one that gets you, you never hear it. He got killed, and I got all cut up. I couldn’t get off the wire. I still have scars on my arms. The Chinese picked me up. They had me for about three weeks, it was bad, and I got sick, something in my stomach, and when there was a prisoner exchange, they sent me back. I got flown to Japan and was in a hospital for a month, but I made it.”
Tony stubbed the L & M out under his heel. He tucked his lighter away. It was time to go to work. He thought about the Greek kid. It was the kind of thing that happened when you were doing the killing while the other guy was trying to kill you.
“There was one Greek kid I knew, he was a baseball player, but he got a leg blown off. They gave him an artificial leg. He didn’t tell anybody about it and tried to come back. He was still trying to make it in the minors after I got home, but, of course, he never made it.”
The home plate entrance to Ebbets Field was an 80-foot rotunda made of Italian marble. Tony went around the back, to a door behind the bleachers in center field. He checked in with the watchman.
“When I got healthy, they said, you can go home unless you want to re-up. We’ll give you $300.00 if you do that. We made $90.00 a month and they paid us $45.00 extra whenever we were in combat. But they didn’t want to pay me for the couple of months I still had left on my two years, so I said, no way.”
“You went home after you got better?” asked Doctor Baird.
“Yeah, I came home to Brooklyn, got my old job back, except my old job was turned into cleaning up in the aisles, but I worked my way back up. I’m doing maintenance work, better pay.”
After Tony changed into his work clothes in the cramped grounds crew locker room, he walked out to the field. They were raking the sand clay mix today, the infield, foul lines, and on-deck plot. His headache was gone. The ballpark was going to look good for the Giants next week.
“Hey Tony, big night tonight with Phil?” asked one of the three men with rakes on their shoulders as he walked up to them with his own rake.
“You bet,” he said. “It’s Bilko tonight. He gets it over on the con men who try to gyp one of his guys. Ike’s going to like this one”
Dwight Eisenhower was a fan of “You’ll Never Get Rich.” Earlier in the season the King of Chutzpah had gotten a telegram from Ike’s press secretary. “The Old Man missed last night’s show,” it said. A print of the show was immediately shipped to the White House.
“You must have seen it filmed.”
“That would be a good bet. They made everybody roll around on the floor, except for Silver, dressed up in their uniforms because the uniforms came in looking too crisp, too starchy, for being in the motor pool. They looked scruffy enough when they were done.”
The show was filmed live in Chelsea in a building that used to be the armory of the Ninth Mounted Cavalry. It was shot like a play and recorded to film. It was a comedy and Phil Silvers ad-libbed like a man lost in his own thoughts. Tony had been in the audience more than a dozen times. He always looked forward to Phil Silvers coming up with something off the top of his cue ball head.
It was why Tony de Marco’s new nickname was Tony the Phil.
Tony was a big fan of Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko, who was named after Chicago Cubs first baseman Steve Bilko. “Bingo to Bango to Bilko” was the way the Chicago radio play-by-play man called double plays executed by shortstop Ernie Banks, second baseman Gene Baker, and Steve Bilko.
Tony never missed a show, unless the Dodgers were playing under the lights, when it was Fernandez to Robinson to Nelson.
He wasn’t the only fan of the show among the crew, but he was the show’s biggest fan among them all. Sergeant Bilko was a pushy patsy whose get-rich-quick schemes almost always fell flat on their face. His tips for success and riches never panned out either, but nobody ever bad-mouthed him for trying. They loved him for trying.
“They always lose, sure, but they don’t blame me, because to a gambler a bad tip is better than no tip at all,” said Phil Silvers.
A short man wearing a plaid cap, a stogie stuck in his thick lips, standing on the far side of the pitcher’s mound in a pair of green knee-high rubber boots, waved a hand at Tony.
“Tony, go out there and check the drainage in center,” said Max Ringolsby, the crew chief, pointing over the top of the second base bag. “Duke said something about the grass being damp out there, maybe the drain is clogged up.”
The Duke of Flatbush was one of the team’s best outfielders, usually assigned to roam center field. The year before he was the National League’s MVP runner-up. Nobody wanted to see him go head over heels on a slick spot.
Tony walked off the infield, into the outfield, to the middle of center field, and found the drain. He got down on his hands and knees. The ground was more waterlogged than it should have been. Drainpipes crossed the field and water flowed down a slight fall to a larger drainpipe that ran into the storm water system. The pipe was about four inches below the sand, clay, and gravel that was below the grass.
Tony cut a block of sod from around the drain and dug down to the drain grate. It was stopped up with debris. He retrieved a screwdriver from the tool room and removed the cover. He put it on the ground beside him and started cleaning it. He had the feeling somebody was watching him. He looked around the field. Almost everyone was working at something. Nobody was watching him.
But he could smell a rat when he saw one.
He bent forward and looked into the drain. A dark-eyed brown rat leaned up and looked back at him. He might have been a foot-and-half stretched out. His teeth were long but gnawed down. Rats chewed on anything, cement, brick, and lead pipes. One of the guys fed scrambled eggs to the rats that loitered in their locker room. Tony wondered what he was doing up and about in the middle of the day. He didn’t wonder that the rat was in the sewer. They could tread water for days.
The rats bred and lived and died and bred in Ebbets Field. They never left. Why would they leave? They had been there since the stadium was built in 1913, generation after generation, because there were always leftover hot dogs roasted peanuts soft pretzels and Cracker Jack beneath seats and around overflowing trash bins.
“Boo,” said Tony the Phil.
The brown rat blinked twitched and skittered back into the storm drain.
Vicki Adams stood in the doorway, leaned forward, nudged Barnett Newman into the office, and said to Stan, “Here he is. I’ll be at MOMA until 11:30, then lunch at Eisenberg’s before I have to hit the typewriter. Join me there?”
It was 10 o’clock the Monday morning.
“See you at noon, doll face,” Stan Riddman said. He grinned wolfishly.
“Watch the language, bub.” Vicki scowled. Stan threw her a sheepish look, apologizing with a two-finger salute. It was how the Polish Armed Services saluted. Stan picked it up during the war.
Vicki waved goodbye and went out the door.
Barnett Newman had thinning hair and a heavy mustache. He wore a polka-dotted bow tie with a monocle dangling from a neck strap down the front of his shirt. He was a heavy man who had not gone heavy. He had never met spoken looked a private eye in the eye in his life.
He was born and bred in New York City, and was sure he would die in NYC, studied philosophy at City College of New York, and worked in his father’s clothing factory in the Bronx before it went bust after the stock market crash. He had been a small-time magazine publisher, ran for mayor in a whimsical write-in campaign in 1933, and finally gave up the bachelor life and got married in 1936.
His wife went to work, and he joined the Art Students League. He kept at it. He made himself into a painter of strict abstraction. In 1950 he painted an 8 by 18-foot long picture in all-over red. He added four vertical bands of color and called them zips. No one knew what he was talking about. He spent hours days weeks explaining it. Barnett Newman enjoyed polemics more than most people.
“It’s no different, really, from meeting another person,” he said about his oversize painting. No one knew what that meant, either.
“Have a seat, Mr. Newman,” said Stan Rittman, standing up at his desk and motioning to one of the two armless wood banker’s chairs that floated around the office.
“Call me Barney.”
“All right, Barney.”
The office of the Duluc Detective Agency wasn’t large. It wasn’t small, either. It had a separate side entrance as well as the front door. The side door went into another office they kept behind an unmarked front door. Stan’s desk faced and was not quite to the left of the front door. It backed on the windows looking down to 48th Street. Ezra shared Bettina’s desk on the rare occasion he had paperwork to work on or needed to prop his legs up on something. It was perpendicular to Stan’s desk on the right. There were two rows of filing cabinets, a freestanding coat rack, an umbrella stand, and a water cooler. In a small storage room were shelves of typewriter ribbon stationary invoices envelopes stamps pens and pencils. One shelf was for whiskey. A floor safe was tucked into a back corner. Stan and Ezra kept their cash and guns in the safe.
“Vicki hasn’t told me much, other than she knows you through the magazine, and likes you, and you have a problem with how a friend of yours died.”
“That’s right, Mr. Rittman. He was Jackson Pollack, who was my friend. There was a car crash. I don’t believe it happened the way the Hampton police say it happened. Lee is having a hard time believing he could have crashed. Jack could drive those roads blindfolded no matter how much he’d had to drink. He could drive them in his sleep.”
“Call me Stan,” said Stan, thinking Barney Newman to be ten fifteen years older than himself and at least twenty years older than Bettina.
“Betty, can you sit in with us, maybe take a few notes?”
“Sure,” said Bettina, stepping over with a steno pad, sitting down on the other loose chair next to Barney Newman.
Ezra called her Big Head Bettina behind her back because she was smart and because her head was slightly larger than it should have been. He called her Betty to her face because she had punched him in the nose the one and only time he called her Big Head. She had grown her hair out recently in a high ponytail style with round bangs at the top of her forehead. When Stan threw an eye on her now, she looked like no worries.
“You said Lee. Who is Lee?” asked Stan.
“Lee Krasner was Jackson Pollack’s wife.”
“Vicki said he died up on Long Island, some small town out there, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I’ve heard of him somewhere, probably the papers, some kind of famous artist, if I’ve got that right. What was he doing driving around in the middle of nowhere?”
“He lived in Springs at the far end of the island and he was living it up with his girlfriend while his wife was in Paris.”
“I see,” Stan said, thinking, this is more like it.
Bettina looked up, paused, her pencil quiet in her hand, as neither Stan nor Barney said anything for a few seconds in the lag of Barney letting them soak it in. He didn’t know Stan and Betty had heard about cheating a hundred times before.
“Why don’t we start at the beginning, tell me all about Jackson Pollack, and what it is you want me to look into,” Stan said.
Most of the work Ezra and Betty and Stan did was insurance and marital work. None of their clients had ever been an artist, wed or single, insured or not insured, dead or alive.
“I didn’t steal no inventory of my own,” said a small-time supplier of slabs of beef. “I am the Dolores, understand? I can’t stand my husband being unfaithful,” said a dark-haired sultry woman wearing a slash of red lipstick. “I’d rather see her dead than unfaithful,” said a burly middle-aged man wearing a diamond pinkie ring. “I hope to God you prove me wrong.” The Pinkie Man went up the river to Sing Sing after all was said and done in a faithless world.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” asked Barney.
“No, I don’t mind,” said Stan, and pushed a three-rest yellow glass ashtray towards him.
Barnett Newman smoked one cigarette after another with girlish puffs and spoke in a nasally voice with a not quite scrubbed away New Yorkese accent. He didn’t drop r’s or add them where they weren’t wanted, or lengthen his o’s and w’s, but it was in the background if you cared to listen. He talked with his hands, his cigarette always in his right hand. He shifted forwards and backwards in his seat, riffling his sport coat out by the lapels, and folding himself back into the chair.
“Where should I start?” he asked.
“Start with Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.
“He was one-of-a-kind, a new man, a new artist. He made himself out of nothing.
He made a new world out of nothing.”
Nearly an hour-and-a-half later, Barnett Newman’s steps fading away in the hallway, a haze of not-yet-stale cigarette smoke lingering behind him, Stan turned to Bettina. “One of us is going to have to go up to Springs,” he said.
“Ezra’s on that waterfront thing, and I don’t drive, remember, so it’s going to have to be you,” she said.
“All right, but you find the girlfriend and talk to her, find out what happened, what she thinks or knows happened, especially that part about Pollack aiming for the tree.”
A half-hour later Stan quick looked into Eisenberg’s. It was a few minutes before noon. He spotted Vicki on one of the red leather stools halfway down the long counter. Her purse was keeping the stool to her left reserved. She smiled when she saw him and waved him over
“Do you need a menu?” one of the cooks behind the counter asked him when he was still halfway down to sitting on the vacant stool.
“No, I’ll take the lox, eggs, easy on the breath, and don’t forget the cup of pickles.”
Vicki ordered smoked salmon on a boiled bagel with lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island. She avoided the pastrami at Eisenberg’s. “Too fatty and too chewy at the same time,” is how she described it, looking down her nose.
“What about the cream cheese and scallions?” he asked.
“What about them?” she said.
“Not much, not by your appetite. Have you ever wondered why they call it Thousand Island?”
“It’s from Thousand Islands, New York, that’s why,” said Vicki. “Maybe fifty years ago, a fishing guide’s wife up there made it up for her husband’s fish dinners. The rest is history.”
“Oh,” said Stan.
“You couldn’t put the Thousand Islands thing together?”
“You told me you graduated from detective school.”
Stan looked up from his cup of coffee.
“I graduated from the school of hard knocks.”
Vicki laughed, spitting bits of salmon.
“How did it go with Barney?”
“It’s a hell of a yarn,” he said. “I don’t know what to think about it. There might be something to it, who knows. Betty is going to look into something Barney told us, about the girlfriend. Maybe you can fill me in on who’s who.”
“You’ve heard of abstract expressionism, I’ve mentioned it, that’s who they are, the painters, it’s all here in New York. Most of them live and work here or out on Long Island. Jackson was an action painter, the real deal.”
“Wasn’t he the painter they called Jack the Dripper?”
“That’s what Time magazine called him earlier in the year, which was all wrong because he wasn’t painting that way anymore, hadn’t been for a few years. He’s been on the quiet side overall the past two, three years.”
“He’s on the hear a pin drop side now,” said Stan.
“Another draw in the dark?” asked the counterman.
“Thanks bud,” said Stan, sliding his coffee cup and saucer forward.
“He was famous,” said Vicki, “Not everyone thought he was good, though. Some hated him and others loved him.”
“If he’s good, I’m going blind and should get out of the business,” complained art dealer Kurt Valentin.
“This is new,” exclaimed the painter Giorgio Morandi. “Vitality, energy, new!”
“Was he good?”
“It depends on who you ask. I liked his work. Some people said it was a complete mess without any method, while others said it was a whole new way of making art, visual energy like no one had ever seen. Life magazine wrote him up, said he might be the best, right around 1950.”
“Most of Jackson Pollack’s paintings resemble nothing so much as a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out,” an offended reporter for the New York World Telegram bellyached.
“Jackson is the greatest painter this country has produced,” acclaimed art critic Clement Greenberg.
“Some people thought he was off his rocker and didn’t know what he was doing,” Vicki said.
“When I am painting, I am not much aware of what is taking place,” explained Jackson Pollack. “It is only after that I see what I have done.”
“What about his wife?” Stan asked.
“They got married in the mid-40s, Lee Krasner, an artist, a good one, too, but it’s hard to say what school she works in,” said Vicki. “She’s been doing collages for years, as far as I know, not exactly groundbreaking.”
“Lee devoted more time to taking care of Jackson than she did to her work,” Roger Wilcox reminisced. “He was difficult, but she believed in him.”
Roger Wilcox’s wife, Lucia, whose own abstract paintings were spelled out with lively sweeps of color, was someone who from the late 1930s helped get the artist’s colony on the east end of Long Island going, from Alfonso Ossorio and Robert Motherwell to Jackson Pollack. She liked to cook and fed the hungry artists who stopped by her large kitchen that opened into her large studio. She believed in Abstract Expressionism.
“Barney is a color field painter,” said Vicki. “He’s not as well-known as Mark Rothko, more of a minor key guy, but he talks it up, and he’s committed to what they’re all up to.”
“What are they up to?” Stan asked.
“Not any one thing. They’re mostly all trying to make it, make New York the capitol of the art world, take over from Paris, and when they do, they’ll be made men. They’re more than halfway there. Most of them, whether it’s abstract or not, most of them are doing something new. An Italian painter, Morandi, he said they dive into the water before they learn to swim. He meant it as a good thing. It’s American-style painting.”
Before he left the Duluc Detective Agency, Barnett Newman asked Stan, “The name of your business doesn’t sound American, sounds French. Do you mind my asking why you’re not Ace or Ajax Detectives?”
“No, I don’t mind,” said Stan. “I was in Paris the last year of the war. I was a military policeman, black armband, big yellow MP on my steel pot. After it was all over, I stayed. I liked the city, liked the food and drink, and I liked the girls. I ran out of money soon enough and started looking for work. I knew the language reasonably well. A friend of mine introduced me to someone who introduced me to Duluc Investigations.”
Stan stubbed his butt out.
“The office was on the ground floor right around the corner from the Louvre. Most of the work was swindle cases and missing persons. It was 1946, so there was a lot of swindling going on and a lot of folks gone footloose. I stayed for two years, learned a lot, but got homesick.”
“What borough, where’s home?”
“That’s not New York.”
“No, but after I shipped back here, back from Europe, a buddy of mine put me up for a few weeks, catching up. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was taking the police exam. I didn’t make it back to Ohio. I was in blue for almost three years, but I butted heads with some heads in the department. It wasn’t for me anymore, taking orders. When I set myself up as an independent, I called the old man back in Paris and asked him if I could use his name on my shingle. He said he was too far away to do anything about it.”
“Will you take it up, find out what happened to Jackson?” asked Barnett Newman.
“I’ll give it a few days and get back to you. We’ll check out the girl and the hometown and go from there. I’ll need something from you introducing me to the wife. Let her know I’m coming, if you can. I don’t want to waste my time or your money.” said Stan.
“Are you going to be able to help them?” asked Vicki, reaching for her slice of apple pie.
“He signed on the dotted line, gave us a deposit, but I’m not sure,” said Stan. “Betty is going to try and see the girlfriend who made it out alive and I’m going to drive up to Springs tomorrow, nose around, see if I can touch base with the widow, stop and see the local cherry tops, get my hands on what’s in the public record, anything they might be willing to tell me.”
“You won’t take Barney for a ride, or anything like that.”
“It sounds like it doesn’t amount to much and it’s probably going to end in nothing. We’ll keep it short, won’t pad it.”
“What do you charge?” Barney had asked
“We charge a flat fee for sweeps, backgrounds, interviews, things in that vein. Yours isn’t anything like that. Your work is going to be $10.00 a man hour, plus expenses. That means anything we have to pay out, buying somebody a beer, buying somebody’s talk, buying gas getting out to Springs, incidentals. We’ll check with you first about anything over twenty dollars.”
“That sounds all right.”
“How did Jackson Pollack end up in Springs?” asked Stan.
“They were living here in the city, but Jackson got sick of it. He and Lee borrowed some money from their dealer, more from a local bank, and they moved there, and got married on the way, ten, eleven years ago,” said Barney. “They bought an old farmhouse, no bathroom, no central heating, a barn, five acres, a great view of the harbor, and a mortgage.”
“It doesn’t sound like they got much for their money, except lots of land and a view.”
“Jackson did his best work in Springs,” said Barney, “He loved it out there.”
“He wasn’t born with a paintbrush in his hand,” Vicki said. “He was from Wyoming. The only thing they paint there are houses. He was a self-destructive man. I’ve heard it from more than one person.”
“I admire his work, a great painter and all that. But he was a difficult character, always drunk and wild, impossible to deal with” said Sidney Janis, after Jackson Pollack wasn’t difficult anymore
“When he went on those drinking spells, we didn’t want to see him. We were afraid of him, of his anger,” said Lawrence Larkin.
“One time, Jack got to driving his damn car so fast I was sure we were going to veer off the road. I thought he was out there to kill himself, kill us all,” said his brother, Frank Pollack.
“He was driven, came from a hardscrabble family. He was ambitious but antisocial, too,” said Vicki. “He could be mean. He was mean, the way I hear it. He went on benders and got into lots of fights, especially at the Cedar Tavern. They all lived in the neighborhood and hung around there for the cheap drinks. He was banned for a while after he tore the bathroom door off its hinges and threw it across the room at another painter.”
“Is that right, he threw a door at somebody. I thought most painters were mostly pansies.”
“Where have you been? That has never been true. It’s a new day and age, anyway,” said Vicki. “The greatest artists have the biggest fights, even though sometimes it’s only with themselves.”
Stan paid the bill, pocketing the receipt, and they stepped out of the no-frills luncheonette onto the sidewalk. Stan flagged down a hack, pecked Vicki on the cheek, and held the door of the car open as she slid into the back seat.
“Where can I see some of Pollack’s paintings?” he asked when Vicki rolled down the window.
“I would try the Sidney Janis Gallery.”
“And the Cedar Tavern is down in Greenwich Village, right?” he asked as the cabbie shifted into gear.
“Go to the Cedar afterwards., after you see the paintings. You’re such a numbskull about modern art, you’ll need a stiff pick-me-up after you see the all-overs, believe me,” she cackled unladylike, pleased with herself. Her hand wiggle waved out the window as the cab pulled away from the curb, merging into the midtown midday traffic.
It was hot, humid, the city as far as the eye could see smelled bad, and the ceiling was dotted with dull clouds. The hot dog Ezra wolfed down for breakfast was giving him trouble. On top of that, the bunion topping his left big toe was throbbing in the new shoes he neglected to stretch beforehand.
It was a bad day to be having a bad day.
But that’s what it was turning into. Now the other penny was dropping. Two pennies, one of them big and mean, the other one smaller and meaner. He was sure nobody was behind him to trip him up but running fast and far was going to be a problem with his goddamn bunion. He kept his hands at his sides, his right hand balled into a fist.
“You can forget about that roll of pennies in your hand,” said the man next to Big Paulie
Luca Gravano was Big Paulie. He wasn’t tall big. He was big all around, a dark suit, dark tie, and white shirt. His face was pockmarked, and he wore thick black browline glasses. The lenses looked like they were smeared with a thin film of Vaseline. His brown eyes were slippery and unfocused.
He stank of low-priced cologne.
“They’re not Lincoln’s,” said Ezra. “They’re Jefferson’s.”
He could use a lucky penny.
“OK, let’s cut the crap,” said Big Paulie. “We ain’t going to get up to anything here, broad daylight, all these guys around, left and right.” He waved a thick hand over his shoulder. “We just wanna know what it is you wanna know.”
Ezra looked past the big man. On the finger pier side was a freighter. Hemp slings were easing swaying pallets off the boat. In the distance he could see the Statue of Liberty. On the dockside was a two-story brick building. A loose group of longshoremen was coming their way, baling hooks in their belts. They would be D & D if anything did get up.
“I don’t know nothing about it,” they would all say, deaf and dumb, after it was all over. But they could be the smoke screen Ezra needed to be on his way.
“I’m trying to get a line on Tommy Dunn,” Ezra lied.
“Never heard of him,” said Big Paulie’s man in shirtsleeves.
“Fair enough,” said Ezra.
“You private?” asked Big Paulie.
“Yeah,” said Ezra.
“Who you work for?” the henchman asked. He had yellow fingernails and sharp front teeth. He wore a black felt pork pie hat.
“Ace Detectives,” Ezra lied.
“I’ve heard of them,” said the tough mean-looking man.
“Best we don’t see you down here again,” said Big Paulie.
“I take your meaning,” said Ezra.
He took a step back, smiling meekly, turning and walking away in stride with the group of longshoremen going his way. He hated shucking and jiving, but he knew enough to hedge his bets. The hoodlums ran the shaping-up, the loading, and the quickie strikes. They hired you for the day if you were willing to kick back part of your day’s pay. At the shape-up you let them know by putting a toothpick behind your ear or wearing a red scarf or whatever the hell it was they wanted to see.
They controlled the cargo theft, the back-door money stevedores paid to keep the peace, and the shylocking from one end of Red Hook to the other end. They didn’t steal everything, although they tried. The unions were the hoodlums. The businessmen were the hoodlums. The pols were the hoodlums. The whole business was hoods.
The Waterfront Commission hadn’t gotten much done since they got started, even though the State of New York and Congress of the United States were both in word and writing on board. It was taking some doing to make it into deeds.
It was just two-some years ago on Christmas week when a new union butted heads with the ILA. Tony “Tough“ Anastasio flooded the streets with the faithful. It took more a thousand club-swinging City of New York policemen to break up the melee at the Port of New York.
In the end, gang rule stayed the rule on the docks.
Ezra put the roll of nickels back in his pants pocket. He walked the length of the wire fence to the gate. Through the gate he turned his back on the Buttermilk Channel. He couldn’t settle down, a sinking feeling in his gut slowing him down. Red Hook was surrounded by water on three sides. A longshoreman smoking alone stared at him. He crossed the street into the neighborhood. The houses, six-story brown brick apartment buildings, were less than twenty years old, but they were already going suspicious and seedy.
“I need a drink,” he thought.
Most days Ezra ran on caffeine and nicotine. Most nights he ran on alcohol and nicotine. Even though it was only late morning, today wasn’t most days.
He found a bar grill at the corner of Court Street and Hamilton Avenue. Sitting down at the bar he ordered a shot and a chaser. He looked up at the bartender. The man was wearing a bow tie. He looked like an old tossed-out mattress wearing a bow tie.
“What have you got on tap?” asked Ezra.
“Ballantine, Schlitz, Rheingold.”
A couple of longshoremen sat on stools a couple of stools away. Squat bottles of beer squatted in front of them. Neither man had a glass.
The TV on a shelf behind the bar was on, although the sound had been turned down to nothing. A beer commercial was running. It was a ticker tape parade through Times Square, but instead of war heroes or celebrities everybody in the parade was a bottle of Rheingold Extra Dry.
“No one knew what that was about,” said one of the longshoremen, pulling a pack of Luckies out of his shirt pocket.
“I got no trouble,” said the other one. “I support my family. I got my four kids. It’s good work.”
“Nothing changes,” said the Lucky Strike man lighting his cigarette. “You just live every day as if it’s your last.”
“I’ll have a Rheingold,” said Ezra Aronson. “Cold as can be, no glass.”
“I’ll have that one,” said Bettina, pointing to a fresh cheese Danish the spinning steel drum had just fed into the window. Pete Murphy deposited three nickels, turned the handle in the lower left corner of the window, and pulled out the plate. He bought a ham sandwich for himself. They poured two cups of steaming brewed coffee, paying a nickel each, and found seats in the cafeteria.
The automat had recently installed photo booths in a row along a back wall. “The New Photographic Sensation! 4 Poses 25 cents! Ready in 2 Minutes!” A young woman wearing a polka-dotted swing dress stood combing her hair in front of one at the small square mirrors next to the entry curtain.
Pete and Betty had finished playing three games of ping-pong at the pool parlor on 42nd Street, working up an appetite. After two games it was one up. Pete won the hard-fought rubber game. After lunch he was going back to work across the street at the New York Public Library and Betty was going downtown to talk to Ruth Kligman, Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend, the young woman who survived the car crash in Springs the month before.
In the meantime, Pete had written up notes about her from clippings on her.
“Ruth was the girlfriend and the other one, the girl who didn’t make it, her name was Edith Metzger,” said Pete, biting into his sandwich. “She was a hairdresser in the Bronx. It’s too bad, since she was only along for the ride, a young girl.”
“You never want to be the innocent bystander,” said Bettina.
“It was a tough weekend all around up there in East Hampton and Southampton,” said Pete. “Ten people died in smash-ups.”
Ruth Kligman and Jackson Pollack had only met earlier in the year before the accident.
“How did they meet?” asked Bettina.
“Audrey Flack hooked them up,” said Pete.
“She wanted to meet important artists,” was how Audrey Flack put it. “I drew her a map of how to get to the Cedar Tavern. She asked me which one was the most important and I said Pollack. She went right to the bar and made a beeline for him.”
“Who’s Audrey Flack?” asked Betty.
“About the same age as Kligman, but an artist, not a hanger-on,” said Pete. “Cooper Union, BFA from Yale, the Institute of Fine Arts here in the city.”
“I remember Pollack’s grin, his arm around her and the finger with the missing tip caressing her shoulder bare above the halter,” Audrey remembered. “I saw what he meant when he said loaded with extras.”
Pete and Betty played ping-pong at the pool hall once or twice a week. Pete was an attacker, standing about three feet away from the table, going at the ball at the top of the bounce, aiming to end points quickly. Serve it smash it was his motto. Betty believed in outwit beats outhit. She was a close to the table defender, countering with under-spin blocks trying to force weak topspin returns then volleying with a well-placed drive or loop.
Baby got backspin was her motto.
Pete led with more long serves than not, with different amounts of topspin backspin sidespin, looking for a counterattack on the third and fifth balls. On the flip side Bettina offered up under-spin and no-spin serves so the ball slowed down or skidded when hitting the table.
“If you want a soft serve, go to Dairy Queen,” complained Pete.
Once in play she spun the ball more often than not. She wasn’t wet behind the ears. She played the long game.
“Spin it to win it,” she said pointedly to Pete.
“The Kligman was working at the Collector’s Gallery when she met Pollack on purpose,” said Pete. “She was new and single, had the Elizabeth Taylor look and feel. He was 44 and married. He was looking for some feeling.”
“He looked tired out and sad,” said Ruth, looking back “His body seemed as though it couldn’t stand up on its own.” He was slump shouldered, bleary-eyed, wan.
She told anyone who would listen that she brought his energy back up. Jackson Pollack fell head over heels for the 26-year-old in a red dress. He spent nights in New York City with her. She moved to Sag Harbor at the start of summer to be closer to him.
“He felt good about her,” said Jim Brooks, the painter who moved into the Greenwich Village apartment Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner moved out of when they moved to Springs. “You know, a pretty, voluptuous gal, thinking he was the greatest man on the word.”
“It looks like the girlfriend knew about the wife and the wife knew about the girlfriend,” said Pete. “The wife went to Europe in July, gave Pollack his marching orders, told him it was going to have to be her or the floozy, and he had until Labor Day to decide. He moved the floozy into their house on Fireplace Road the same afternoon the wife left.”
“His dream was to have both, like a little boy,” said Patsy Southgate between scribbles in her journal.
“Lee was dealing with a powder keg,” said Nick Carone, an artist friend of the Pollack’s.
“I will never give Jackson a divorce,” said Lee.
“The car was flipped over, cans of Rheingold all over,” said Pete. “The young girl was pinned under the car, DOA. The girlfriend broke a leg and Pollack got rocketed into the woods. He was DOA, too.”
“It sounds like a hell of a mess,” said Betty.
After the accident Patsy Southgate visited Ruth. “She didn’t look much banged up to me,” she said. “In fact, she looked great.”
The eager beaver Ruth, leaning back on a sofa, her bare legs propped up on an ottoman, in a friend’s living room in the East Village, related how what happened was going to happen, no matter what.
“Edith started screaming, ‘Stop the car, let me out!’ but he put his foot all the way to the floor. He was speeding wildly,” she said. She made it sound like he had meant to drive himself to death, as though the car crash was no accident, no speed limit to save you from your own fate.
“It had to happen. Jackson was schizoid and he couldn’t be stopped. Edith was scared by the situation with him. She was a victim, but she always was. Jackson was a victim, too. He had to die,” Ruth said.
“It was a mess,” said Pete, “but at the wake about a week later, out at their house there in Springs, a lot of people said afterwards it was the best party they had ever been to.”
“The best chili I ever had in my life, really hot stuff,” said Franz Kline.
“What stays with me is that baked Virginia ham,” said Morton Feldman. “I never tasted such ham, never.”
“I had too much to drink,” said Charles Pollack. “I remember dancing with a black girl.”
Artists are always hungry, whether they are starving, or not.
“We all had a good time,” said Clement Greenburg.
“Thanks, Pete,” said Bettina. “How about Friday? You were good, but I can be better. You owe me a rematch.”
“See you then,” he said. “Bring your lucky paddle. Let me know how it goes with the girlfriend. I’ll be all ears.”
Betty whistled a cab up to go to the East Village to talk to Ruth Kligman, the siren who sank Jackson Pollack.
The car was ready the minute Stan walked in. Smokey the garage man tossed the car keys to him.
“All gassed up,” he said.
Stan got into the driver’s seat, turned the key in the ignition, and eased the 1955 Pontiac Star Chief into the flow of traffic for the drive out to the far end of Long Island. The engine hummed, 1954’s straight-eight replaced by a new V-8. The sedan was a light gray color, two ‘Silver Streaks’ running the length of the hood and showcase leather upholstery. Although neither he nor Ezra drove it overmuch, and might have been able to do without it, they both liked the car, and since in their line of work, they reasoned, some things happen somewhere else besides the city, they would be better off getting there in a Star Chief, instead of some heap of nuts and bolts, like a Ford.
“Fix or repair daily,” is what Smokey said about Fords.
He was concerned for the car whenever Ezra took it out for whatever reason. Stan was a careful driver, usually staying a few miles–or-so below the speed limit, always signaling, never trying to beat a light, but Ezra was not the nice guy at a dogfight behind the wheel. He hadn’t put a wrinkle in the Star Chief, yet, but it was only a matter of time. Riding in the car with Ezra was like bad weather no matter the weather.
They kept the Pontiac garaged in Brooklyn to keep expenses down. He guided the car through East New York, through Queens, and on to Route 27, and was on his way the more than one hundred miles to East Hampton. From there the Fireplace Road would take him directly to Springs and whatever Jackson Pollack had left behind.
He slipped past convertibles, panel vans, and station wagons full of wives and kids going to Howard Beach, Lido Beach, and Jones Beach. He kept his mind off his errand. The old man had always said not to overthink the work, especially at the beginning, when there wasn’t much to think about, anyway.
The drive took almost four hours. The road was a two-lane that went through every town on the way. He stopped in Patchogue to stretch his legs in the shadow of a billboard. Stan craned his neck to look up at it.
‘Patchogue: Biggest Shopping Center on Long Island.’
There were at least six gas stations in Bridgehampton, a small potato farm town north of Sagaponack Pond. He pulled into the Sinclair, even though he was less than ten miles from East Hampton. A side lot was filled with tractors, sprayers, and harvesters waiting to be repaired.
“Fill it up?”
Stan got out of the car while the attendant, dressed in a shirt and cap with the company’s logo, limped to the pump. A teenager ran up and cleaned off the windshield, checked the oil, and added air to one of the tires. There was a sign in the window.
‘Free All-Plastic Dinosaur Piggy Bank with Every Fill-up.’
“Make it 5 gallons,” said Stan.
“$1.25,” said the attendant.
Stan pulled some singles from his wallet. While the attendant went into the station to make change, he looked at one of the Silver Certificates still in his wallet. Congress had passed and President Eisenhower signed a new law the month before. “In God We Trust” was now the motto of the United States and it was going to be on all paper money starting the next year. Stan didn’t follow the Red Scare or the Cold War in the papers, but he knew enough to understand why the USA had to be a God-fearing and the Commies had to be atheists.
A piece of paper stained by water oil dirt was taped to one of the gas pumps.
‘In god we trust. All others pay cash.’
Stan wasn’t a religious man, but he thought printing God’s name on money might be sacrilegious. God didn’t care how much money you had in your wallet. What about what happened to the money lenders in the temple?
East Hampton’s Main Street was lined with elm trees. He located the police station on Newtown Lane. They had their own gas pumps on the sidewalk outside the front door and two cells in the back. The post office was across the street. He drove past Bohack’s, the burg’s grocery store. There were no street numbers on many of the houses. There was one traffic light in the center of town. He stopped at it when it turned red.
A loose group of Negro migrant workers sat on benches with bottles of Thunderbird in paper bags. It might have been their day off. Across the street the Candy Kitchen was full for lunch. There were no dark faces at the counter or at any table and there were no half-empty glasses of curb juice.
He was going to have to stay the night, find somewhere for dinner and a bed.
A woman was watering the lawn and a bed of flowers in front of a small white flat-roofed building. He pulled over. A sign said, ‘Ladies Village Improvement Society’.
“Hello,” said Stan.
“Hello,” said the woman, turning off the nozzle of her garden hose.
“I wonder if you could tell me where I can find a motor inn?”
“Montauk is where I would try,” she said. “They’ve built more than a half-dozen new ones up there in the past few years. It’s just fifteen-or-so miles up the road.”
“Thanks,” he said, and added, “Do you mind my asking what the society does?”
“Not at all,” she said, brightening. “We water all the flowers and gardens downtown, help keep the public order, not that I’m saying the police don’t care, and make sure all the stores are closed on Sundays. We do our best to make sure everyone is in proper dress whenever they’re out in public, too.”
A busybody’s work is never done, thought Stan.
It wasn’t far from East Hampton to Springs, about four miles. He found Jackson Pollack’s two-story wood-shingled house on the Fireplace Road. It looked like an old farmhouse. There was a cherry tree next to the house, silver maples all around, and the long backyard sloping down to salt marshes. There was a small barn behind and to the side of the house. When Stan looked in through one of the windows, he saw a floor spattered with paint and footprints. The floor shelves workbenches were crowded with cans of paint and half-empty cans full of sticks brushes and turkey basters. Canvases were rolled up on top of a cabinet. A pile of sand was in one corner, a stepladder in another.
A clear-eyed expansive light poured in through a large high window. He walked back to the house and looked in through the living room window. There were paintings hanging on the walls, all of them filled with sprawling looping crazy colors. Jazz records littered the floor in front of a record player.
There was no one in sight. He got into his Star Chief and drove to Montauk. There were no sidewalks in town. He parked at an angle. A horse was tied up to a telephone pole. He ate at Gosman’s Deck, a clam bar shack, and had clams, pasta with olive oil and chopped tomatoes, and a bottle of Falstaff.
He found a reasonably priced room at Uncle Tom’s Cabins.
“There’s a nice beach down on Fort Pond,” said the woman in black capris and a red and white Roman shirt, a cigarette burning in the ashtray at her elbow, behind the counter.
It was a five-minute walk. He took his time.
Stan sat on the beach, his back against a pretzel log of driftwood, and watched the sun go down. He got to his feet before it got too dark to see, making his way back to the motor inn. He walked up the crushed clamshell driveway, guided by the light on the wall next to his room door that he had turned on before going to the beach.
Barney Newman had said Jackson Pollack did his drinking at Jungle Pete’s. It wasn’t overly late. He could drive up there for another beer. He would get the lay of the land tomorrow, talk it up wherever Jackson Pollack had done his stomping and dying, drive back to the city, and compare snapshots with Betty the day later. He didn’t believe darkness could be understood by overwhelming it with a flood of light, although shining a light on it helped.
Slow and steady out on Long Island. That was the way he was going to play it. No one hand, no matter how good, ever busted the bank. But, with a good flashlight, the potholes in a dark road could lead to the key of the brain-twister, if there was a brain-twister.
“Is it the same as being in jail?” asked Dottie.
“None of them have committed a crime, so it’s not the same, not exactly, even though they’re all behind bars,” said Otis.
Dottie Riddman and Otis Arnold were at the Central Park Zoo. All the animals were behind bars. They were innocent, in their own way, but it didn’t matter to their keepers, no matter how well-meaning the keepers were. The lions might have bitten their heads off if they could, but they couldn’t.
“I asked Ezra to take me before school started,” said Dottie.
“What am I, chopped liver?” asked Otis.
“No, you’re Oats!” said Dottie, laughing gaily. “Do you know what he said?”
“No, what did he say?”
“If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you.”
“That wasn’t nice.”
“I think he meant he was busy,” said Dottie. “He had to do something for dad.”
Otis liked Dottie, even though he didn’t especially like children. They were needy, messy, and noisy. He didn’t dislike them, but he didn’t like them, either. Only Dottie. She was a tomboy as much as she was a 12-year-old girl. He liked that.
Children were always being told by their parents to listen, but what they did more than listen, tending to only listen to the voice in their heads, was watch, sizing you up. When they weren’t watching, they were imitating whoever and whatever was in the neighborhood worth imitating. When they weren’t doing that, they were moving around all the time, getting lost and found,
Or they were wasting their time. He thought it was OK for children to waste some of their time, but only if there was something in the wasting. Otherwise, it was lost time.
Dottie was 12 years-old – “No, I’m not, I’m almost thirteen!” – but she knew how to listen and talk and not size him up. She had fun going to the movies, the park, the zoo, but she didn’t play around at being playful. She wasted less time than most children.
Otis took the day off from Osner Business Machines to take Dottie to the zoo. Dottie took the day off from school. Otis had heard fifty thousand people tramped through the zoo on Saturdays and Sundays, so weekends were out. It had to be a weekday. School had just started, but it might be the last time Dottie could go to the zoo, and she convinced everyone it was worth playing hooky for. Stan wrote a note for her before he drove out to the far end of Long Island.
It wasn’t any stretch Otis getting the day off. He was the best repairman in the shop on the Upper West Side, two or three times faster than the other repairmen, and he got the stickiest jobs done with the least effort. It didn’t matter of it was keys or platens or carriages. It didn’t matter if it was a Royal, an Underwood, or a Smith-Corona.
Besides, he didn’t absolutely need a full-scale paycheck every two weeks. He lived quietly, for the most part, and had a nest egg squirreled away. Nobody knew anything about it. Otis kept some things close to the bone. He worked part-time at the typewriter repair shop and part-time for the Duluc Detective Agency. His cash savings were the payoff for being a part-time off-the-record do-it-all big city gumshoe.
Dottie and Otis ate breakfast together and he treated her to a cab ride to the Pond. They took a long walk around it, fed ducks with old lettuce Otis had torn into small pieces beforehand, and finally walked up East Drive to Park Road to the Central Park Zoo.
The Central Park Zoo was sometimes called the Robert Moses Zoo, because Moses had redesigned and rebuilt it twenty years before, from a rough-and ready place to a picture-book place of limestone and brick buildings. It was on the small side, maybe seven acres, but it had tropic, temperate, and polar animals, bird and monkey houses, and a sea lion pool in the middle of it. Eight outsize granite eagles were two-by-two on the four corners of the pool.
Nobody had to guess what was inside the animal houses. Friezes were everyone’s guide. Rocky Mountain sheep on the antelope house, a gorilla chewing on a twig on the monkey house, and marching penguins on the bird house. Every house had a chimney, too, and on every chimney was an iron weathervane of the animal inside.
The Arsenal, a hundred years old, had always been there and was still there. In its time it had been a weather bureau, a police precinct, and an art gallery. The front of the Arsenal faced Fifth Avenue. The turrets on the roof were offices for the parks department. In summer the office workers kept time for lunch hour by listening through their open back windows for the sea lions barking for their fish fillets.
Dottie liked the bearcats, which weren’t bears or cats, but like dust mops with a long tail and a pointy face. She liked them because they smelled like popcorn. “When they pee, it soaks their feet and fuzzy tails,” a zookeeper told her. “That’s what smells like popcorn.”
She wished her pee smelled like popcorn.
In the park near their apartment she had noticed, down on her hands and knees and her nose to the ground, that some of the ants smelled like lemon drops and the flat creepy crawlers smelled like cherry cola. She told her dad, but he didn’t pay attention behind his newspaper.
Otis was the Duluc Detective Agency’s jack-of-all-trades. He was the master of some of them. He could pick most locks in a minute. He knew how to start and stop anybody’s car. He operated all the photographic equipment and sound recordings. He was even good at lifting prints, if he had to.
He owned an Exakta and a new Leica. The Leica M3 was the finest 35 mm ever made, he reckoned. He had a Minox spy camera, which was handy when he was rifling mail.
He used a letter remover that didn’t disturb the gummed seals. He would insert the pincer-like device into the unsealed gap at the top of the envelope, turn the handle of the remover to wind up the letter, extract it from the envelope, photograph it, and carefully repeat the process to return the letter.
He had picked up a button camera, too. A coat button hid a lens that screwed into a small camera. A cord ran into a pocket. When he was ready to take a photo, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled a lever, shooting the still onto 16mm subminiature film.
He used a Mohawk midget recorder to wiretap telephones and a Minifon portable wire recorder with long play cassettes, a watch microphone, and a shoulder harness, when he was working face-to-face. Otis had a face like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, making everyone think they had seen him somewhere before.
Otis and Dottie had a late lunch at Kelly’s Restaurant. A bronze statue of a tigress, her jaws clamped on a dead peacock, her young sniffing at her feet, was front-and-center in front of the eatery. Dottie clambered on top of it, straddling the tigress like a horse.
“Ride ‘em, cowboy!” Otis whooped.
“I’m a cowgirl!” Dottie yelled.
They sat outside on the terrace at a table beneath an umbrella. Otis was outnumbered ten to one by women and twenty to one by children. He had a broiled hamburger sandwich and stewed fruit. Dottie had a cold sliced ham sandwich and applesauce. Otis drank an A & W root beer and Dottie had an Orange Crush. He stretched his legs out and Dottie curled hers up underneath her.
“What do you like best about the zoo?” asked Otis.
“The smells,” said Dottie.
It smells like shit, he wanted to say. It’s a safe place to fart, that’s for sure. No matter how well the cage keepers did their jobs, animals urinated and defecated all day long. If human beings didn’t use bathrooms there would be one hell of a smell worldwide. Not only that animals did not bathe. Their body odor was everywhere downwind. You could smell the zoo a mile away.
The zoo was hard on the flank of Fifth Avenue. What was it like every summer, on stagnant hot humid summer days, the nearby apartment windows open to catch a breeze, he wondered? Whatever breeze they caught, the wind was westerly, and Fifth Avenue was on the east side of the park.
“That goo that comes out of the beaver butts, it smells like vanilla, and those toads in the mud, they smell like peanut butter, even though the smell makes me sneeze and my eyes burn,” said Dottie.
“What else do you like about the zoo?”
“I like being in the park, the sunshine, and the animals, but I don’t like that they’re in cages.”
“No, I don’t either,” said Otis.
“Why do they put them in cages?”
“They do that to protect us. Lions and bears can be very dangerous.”
“Are they the most dangerous?”
“No, people are the most dangerous. Animals only kill to eat or defend themselves. We kill animals to eat, too, like chickens and pigs, but we also kill elephants for their tusks, tigers for their teeth, and bears for their fur. Sometimes people kill animals for no reason.”
“Lions and bears don’t live in cages at home, do they?”
“No, they live in jungles and forests, which is too bad for them, because their cages are thousands of times smaller than where they used to live.”
There were two six-foot bronze statues on either side of the restaurant. One was Dancing Goat and the other one was Honey Bear. The goat was rearing up and ducks at his feet sprayed water out of their mouths. The bear was on its hind legs, twisting its neck and head to one side, and sticking his tongue out. There were bronze frogs spraying water at his feet.
“Dad says some people belong in zoos.”
“He means bad people, not zoos so much, but behind bars.”
“Nobody puts people in zoos, do they?”
“Not anymore, but they used to, they were the zoo, a hundred years ago. They were like traveling zoos, people from India and Africa.”
“What kind of people?”
“Strange people, different people, rope dancers, camel herders, Zulu fighters. There were whole villages, primitive people on display.”
“They didn’t mind?” asked Dottie.
“I don’t know,” said Otis. “I know I would mind.”
They watched boys and girls glide by on bicycles. Mothers pushed strollers, slow, slower, talking to their friends. A mime wheeled past on a unicycle, pretending to have great difficulty staying upright.
After lunch Otis and Dottie walked across the terrace to the sea lion pool. Dottie hopped on the bottom rail of the fence to get a better view. One of the sea lions was napping on top of a platform. Another one, across the gap from her, on the other side of the second, inner metal fence, was slip sliding on the wet ledge, barking at the sleeper. Other seals were sunbathing and three were chasing each other in the water.
“Let’s go see the real lions,” said Dottie.
“OK, let’s go,” said Otis.
The lion they saw spread out in his cage was seven feet long, or more.
“Jesus!” said Otis. “He must be three hundred, four hundred pounds.”
How do tamers get into the ring with them, he wondered? I wouldn’t dare. It would be like trying to stare down a crazy gangster with dead eyes and a Thompson.
“What does it say?” asked Dottie, pointing to the label screwed to the wall. Otis read the label to her.
“The Southeast African lion, also known as the Kalahari or Transvaal lion, is found in the southern parts of Africa. Groups of them called prides live in open woodlands, savannas, and grassy plains. They survive 10 years in the wild and up to 20 in captivity. Lions spend most of their time resting, napping and sleeping. They hunt at dawn and dusk.”
“Do you know what lion means?” asked Dottie.
“No, what does it mean?”
“It means king. That’s why they’re king of the jungle.”
“You’ve seen too many Tarzan movies,” said Otis.
“No, it was in my book.”
“What book was that?”
“Tawny Scrawny Lion.”
“It doesn’t sound like he was much of a king.”
“You have to read the book.”
Otis and Dottie were less than eight feet away from the lion. The big cat was a male, straw and leaves stuck in his short, light-colored mane, his face like a sphinx. He had a long tail with a black tassel at the end of it. He flicked his tail. When Dottie walked to the other end of the cage, the lion followed her with his bloodshot orangey brown eyes, turning his big head. She walked halfway back to Otis and stopped.
Dottie looked up into the lion’s eyes. She was excited and scared. The lion opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and panted several times. She took a step back. She couldn’t look away.
“Do you think he wants to eat me?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Otis.
“Maybe we should go. Can we stop at the monkey house before we leave?”
“Sure, Dots, let’s go,” said Otis, taking her hand.
They left the Central Park Zoo twenty minutes later. Dottie looked back over her shoulder, walking out the gate of the zoo, at the clock at the top of the musical clock tower. There were dancing bears and elephants on ledges beneath the clock. Above the clock was a cast iron bell. It was a quarter to four. It would be four o’clock by the time they found a cab.
On Long Island it was four o’clock when Stan Riddman looked at his watch. There was time enough to make it home with daylight to spare. He could have dinner, a cold beer, and if Dottie wasn’t staying over with Otis, no matter the confirmed bachelor he was, tuck her into bed. He slid into the Star Chief, started up the car, and started the drive back to the other end of Long Island.
It was a quarter after four when a skinny East Hampton policeman slid into the phone booth a block away from the station and called the number on the slip of paper the one-hundred-dollar bill had been paper-clipped to.
“This is East Hampton. You wanted to know if anyone ever came up here snooping around after Jackson Pollock, right?”
“Yeah. What do you know?”
“There was a guy here today, talked to the chief, some of Pollock’s neighbors, spent the day sticking his nose into things.”
“Did you get a name?”
“He said his name was Stan Riddman, a private dick from the city.”
“OK, forget this number, don’t call again.”
The policeman crumpled the piece of paper in his hand, stepped out of the phone booth, and threw it down on the sidewalk. A woman walking past, a member of the Ladies Village Improvement Society, snapped a disapproving look at him.
“Mind your own business,” said the skinny policeman, kicking the paper into the gutter.
When he was gone the woman from the Improvement Society circled back, bent down, picked up the crumb of paper, and threw it into a trash can.
“Disgusting man,” she groused, straightening herself up.
Bumpy Williams had a dimpled receding off-center chin and brown eyes. They were a dead colorless brown. At the same time, they were dead set on the prize when he was on the job. He rarely missed what he meant to see and have.
He was wearing a brown single-breasted jacket with brown pleated trousers, but his shoes were gaudy City Club two-lace two-tones. His face was what made him good at what he did. Most people couldn’t ever remember what he looked like, even though there was an ugly jagged scar on one side of his chin. Nobody wanted to get caught staring at his chin or the scar and nobody ever looked in the vicinity of his eyes, which when he was working had a cold flat gaze.
Some people couldn’t even say whether he was a white or black man, even though he was a Negro. They avoided him, hugging the gutter side of the sidewalk. It was Thursday, a week before the end of summer, and he could hear Doris Day singing ‘Whatever Will Be Will Be’ on a car radio easing down the street. “White people are always down in the damned dumps,” he thought. Little Richard had ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Ready Teddy’ on the Billboard 100 chart. That was slippin’ and slidin’ music.
He had a dog-eared rolled-up copy of All-Negro Comics in his back pocket. He had five dollars and change in his wallet in another back pocket, a 6-ounce stainless steel flask with a picture of a roller-skating chimp on it in his jacket pocket, and a Vest Pocket Colt .25 in a vest pocket. It was only good at close range, but it was better than nothing.
He stood still and looked across the curb at the four-story building on the other side of the street. Queen Stephanie’s man had said the snooper worked on the second floor. A sign on the building said Duluc Detective in green and white neon letters. The building was one back from the corner of West 48th Street and 10th Avenue.
Bumpy looked into the parking lot behind him. “This is going to be easy,” he thought. He would put the glad hand on a car, park it in the lot where he could spy on the front door, keeping track of the comings and goings. A separate door on the side in plain sight led up to the private cop’s office. There was a cobbler’s shop on the ground floor and apartments on the top two floors.
He could see an oversized gold register through the street window and a line of shoeshine chairs with brass pedestals. The repair shop was probably in the basement. The heels of his two-tones needed repairing, but he didn’t like the idea of leaving his shoes in Hell’s Kitchen.
Bumpy took his shoes to Tony’s Shoe Repair in mid-town, in the garment district, off Seventh Avenue, even though there wasn’t a Tony anymore. The real Tony was the guy who opened the store in 1928 and sold it six years later to another guy named Gaetano. He kept Tony’s sign, so he became the second Tony, even though he wasn’t, and his son Dan became the third Tony.
There were Poles, Greeks, and Irish in Hell’s Kitchen. The cops were all Irish. There were Italians and Puerto Ricans. Everybody talked a foreign language. There were drivers, factory men, and longshoremen. There was stickball and stoopball on the streets. There were too many kids on scooters. There were too many tough kids. They didn’t carry weapons though, no guns, no knives. They thought they were tough enough to fight natural, with their hands.
He had gotten into a beef with one of them, not even a shaving age punk ass, hands like boxing gloves, fingers as thick as thumbs. He hit the boy on the head, and nothing happened, except the second finger on his own right hand got the worse of it. It was still bent, a year later.
When Stan Riddman walked past Bumpy, espresso in hand and biscotti in a bag, and went in the side door, Bumpy went looking for a car to steal. By the time Stan and Bettina were sitting opposite one another at Stan’s desk, biscotti spread out on the torn open bag, espresso still hot, Stan’s notes and Bettina’s notebook at hand, Bumpy was back with somebody else’s car.
He would leave it behind when he left. It would be cleaner than when he stole it, too. He didn’t like spending all day in a dirty car, so he always tidied it up first thing.
Stan swept crumbs off his desk into the palm of his hand and shook them into the trashcan next to his desk.
“’He looked like an old dead tree lying in the brush,’ was what one of Pollack’s neighbors said,” he said. “The man helped the police search the woods with a flashlight. ‘There was a little blood run down from the forehead, no other damage except for the neck swollen like a balloon,’” Stan read from his notes.
“I talked to the undertaker up there who handled Pollack and the dead girl. He said Pollack died of a compound fracture of the skull and the girl died of a broken neck.”
“What do the police think?” asked Bettina.
“They think he had a hell of a lot to drink, they think he was a hell of an unhappy man, and they think it was a hell of an accident. I talked to an Earl Finch. He was the patrolman on the scene.”
“I knew he was dead from the look of him,” said Police Officer Finch. “It was so dark up there I don’t think I even covered him up.”
“Jesus!” said Dr. William Abel when he was led to the broken-down body of Jackson Pollack hundreds of feet into the dark woods.
The East Hampton police report showed Earl Finch radioed back to the station at 10:30 PM. It was less than twenty minutes after the accident. “Two dead at scene of accident.” One girl was crushed by the upside down Olds, the other girl fractured her pelvis, and Jackson Pollack died of a head injury, was how the report put it.
Jackson Pollack was wearing “a black velvet shirt, gray pants, a brown belt, blue shorts, brown socks, no shoes, no jewelry, and no ID.” Officer Finch knew who it was without having to look at the face.
“Who called in the accident?”
“Three or four people. One of the neighbors said he heard the car barreling down the road and told his wife, ‘That fool isn’t going to make the curve.’ The others heard the car horn after the accident happened.”
“After, not before?”
“Yeah, I guess the horn got stuck and started blowing and wouldn’t stop.”
“What bothered us was that horn blowing,” said a neighbor “We jumped in the car.” They drove to the crash. “There wasn’t anyone around, just this girl with her head toward that piled-in car and blood on her coming out of her scalp. We had to holler at her with the horn blaring.”
“It sounds like a small town. What is Springs like?” asked Betty.
“Small,” said Stan. “It’s sort of a thumb of land stuck out into a bay, so there’s water on three sides. There’s a lot of in the middle of nothing there. The locals call themselves Bonackers.”
“I’m going to be a Bonacker same as you some day,” Jackson Pollack said one day, reaching for a beer at the Joe Loris bar in the East Hampton Hotel.
“You only got to wait four hundred years,” said George Sid Miller.
“Everybody says he drank phenomenal amounts of beer,” said Stan. “They say it had been going on for about four years. Before that he’d been good, although he seems to have always drunk plenty. One of his neighbors said if he hadn’t killed himself in that car, he would have killed himself with drink, sooner rather than later.”
“How about the car? Did anybody check to see if it had been tampered with?”
“No, it was turned over, busted, and a wrecker hauled it away. It wasn’t the first car he had driven into a tree, either, He had a Caddy, did it about five years earlier. I talked to a Jim Brooks, one of his friends, and a painter. He said, ‘I expected him to kill himself in an automobile, and I knew he wanted not to do it alone.’’’
“So, he was suicidal?”
“Not that anyone said, but some of them said he was self-destructive. They seemed to think there was a difference. One guy at Jungle Pete’s said Pollack was too much of a coward to kill himself.”
“What is Jungle Pete’s?” asked Betty.
“A bar diner restaurant social club, rough around the edges.”
“He came to my restaurant every day for eggs and home fries, toast and coffee,” said Nina Federico at Jungle Pete’s. “He bought a second-hand bike and would come over evenings on the bike for beers. He didn’t always get home on the bike, though.”
“There’s a couple who live right there,” said Stan. “Nina would give them the high sign and they would take him home. The beer is a nickel. I spent some of an evening there. The locals bring their kids in their pajamas, the kids fall asleep on the floor, and their parents dance and party all night.”
“It sounds like a house party. What was their house like in Springs?”
“There was a lot of paint in a studio, a converted barn, it looked like to me, but you wouldn’t know he was a famous artist by his house, even though he was famous enough that the New York Times ran the story of his death on page one.”
“Did he have any problems in the neighborhood?”
“He seems to have had a soft spot for kids and dogs. Somebody said he had a pet crow for a while. One lady said he was an innocent, childlike person, except when he was in a car. Everybody had seen him falling down drunk, more than once. I talked to a doctor neighbor of his who said Pollack would put away two, three cases of beer when he was on a bender.”
“Jesus!” said Betty.
“Found Jackson Pollack outside on the sidewalk lying down,” said the East Hampton police blotter more than once.
“He could be mean, got into fights, broke his ankle just a few years ago fighting with some other artist, but I didn’t talk to anybody who disliked him, although not everybody liked him. There were more people than not who felt sorry for him.”
“Did anything look funny about the crash?”
“Not to anybody up there.” said Stan. “Not to me, either. They seemed surprised it happened but not surprised.”
Bumpy Williams cracked open his All-Negro Comics and balanced it on the steering wheel. Ace Harlem was the private detective of the cover story and the bad guys were zoot-suited, jive-talking, back alley muggers. He was planning on re-reading both “Lion Man and Bubba” and “Sugarfoot,” all about the traveling musicians Sugarfoot and Snake Oil gone on the prowl for a farmer’s daughter.
He had brought a double-decker sandwich and thermos of coffee with him.
He peeled back the parchment paper the sandwich was wrapped in and spread it out on his lap. He poured himself a cup of coffee and put the cup on top of the dashboard.
It was after two o’clock when he finished eating and tossing crumbs out of the car. “Remember – Crime Doesn’t Pay, Kids!” Ace Harlem said on the back cover of the comic book. Bumpy folded it and slipped it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“While you were re-discovering that Pollack drank like a fish and finding out what he was wearing when he died, I talked to the death-car girl,” said Betty. “Maybe everybody back home expected or didn’t expect something like that accident to happen, she says it wasn’t an accident. She says Jackson Pollack swerved off the road and accelerated into the oak tree he smashed into.”
“She thinks he was committing suicide?”
“No,” said Betty. “She calls it his death-day.”
“What’s the difference?”
“At the moment he died I believe his soul went into my body,” explained Ruth Kligman. “When I was convalescing in the hospital, he came and visited me. I’m like Cleopatra and he was like Marc Anthony. He was a very deep soul mate. The minute I met him I felt I had known him for years.”
“He visited her?”
“You don’t believe any of that any more than I do, Betty.”
“No,” she said. “But she was right there, and she believes he deliberately drove off the road.”
“There were no skid marks, on or off the road, according to the police report,” Stan said. “The police sergeant I talked to estimates he was going sixty to seventy when he hit the tree.”
The Oldsmobile fishtailed almost two hundred feet through underbrush before colliding with the guts of the forest, pivoting, going end over, a hubcap rolling away, empty cans of Rheingold spraying into the dark.
“If we take it for granted it wasn’t an accident, and we take it for granted he wasn’t trying to commit suicide, what do we have?” asked Stan.
“We have him driving into the tree on purpose, but not for any suicidal reason,” said Betty.
“If that’s what we have, that’s crazy. Why would he do that?”
“Maybe somebody brainwashed him into doing it.”
Stan and Betty gave it some thought.
“If that’s what we’ve got, then who would have done the brainwashing? Who had the means and opportunity to lead Jackson Pollack down that path? I can’t see it happening out there in Springs.”
“Barney Newman told us he had been in and out of therapy for a long time,” said Betty. “We could start with his doctor. We know Pollack came into the city often, did business with his dealers, went drinking with his pals at the Cedar Tavern, ran around with his girlfriend. I would expect his doctor to be here in the city.”
“All right, let’s find out who he was, try to get a line on him.”
“Does that mean me?”
“That’s why you make the big bucks,” said Stan.
“When did that happen?” asked Betty.
At the end of the day Bumpy Williams found a phone booth and called in his watching the detective’s day.
“He didn’t do nothing all day. He’s got some girl, probably his office girl, and a Jew man came and went. Other than that, he was in the office all day and then went home. I didn’t see a wife, but he’s got a little girl. That’s it. I’m gonna head up to the barbershop, get a wig chop, maybe stop up at Joe Wells’ for some fried chicken and waffles.”
Wells’ Restaurant, sometimes an eatery, sometimes a nightclub, was on Seventh Avenue between 132nd and 133rd. Bumpy Williams was from South Carolina but had grown up and still lived on 132nd Street. He lived on the top floor of a brownstone. Benta’s Funeral Home was on the first and parlor floors of the building.
“We like your looks,” they said when they rented the rooms to him after the war. “The crown is yours.” He had lived there ever since.
Benta’s buried famous, infamous, and nobody no-how Negro’s. If you had plenty of dead presidents, you could order a gold, green, or red hearse, with a colored coffin to match. If you were low on folding money, George Benta made arrangements. Nobody was ever turned away.
It wasn’t that the funeral director was over generous. Going up the stairs one day Bumpy heard George behind him. “Don’t forget to turn that hall light off when you turn in. My name is George Benta, not Thomas Edison.”
George Benta wasn’t a stingy man. He was a frugal man. Bumpy had no problem with that.
“Stop by the shop and we’ll pay you for the day. The Queen says best we pay you by the day. She says there’s something queer going on, so we’ll keep it close. We maybe will need you again the next couple of days.”
Queenie Johnson ran the numbers in Harlem, the uptown arm of Albert Anastasia’s Italian Hand. Bumpy knew if he was doing work for her, he was doing work for them. That’s where the money came from.
“The Mad Hatter says there’s no such thing as good money or bad money,” Queenie said one day when they were smoking after Bumpy had made a delivery to her runners and controllers. “There’s just money, is what Albert says.”
Benta’s had buried Alain Locke, a big-time Negro, two years ago. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mrs. Paul Robeson, and Charles Johnson all came and paid their respects. Nobody could find a place to park. Nobody stayed over long. There wasn’t enough space to stand. The breathing air in the grieving chapel started to get run out
Bumpy was standing at the front door with George Benta after it was all over, and the casket coach was pulling away. George was in his work clothes, a long coat, pinstripes, and gray gloves. His wife, Pearl, was accompanying the funeral procession.
“Do you know that little man kept sperm samples from all his man lovers in a small box? One of them tried to slip it into the coffin. I slapped his hand away. I wouldn’t touch that box, though, not on your life.”
Bumpy looked down the street, putting sperm out of his mind.
“You pay me what you said, I’ll lean on a light pole every day of the week,” he said to Queenie’s man. “I’ll check with you in the morning. King Cole is supposed to be in town for that new TV show he’s doing, and word is he might be singing it up at the supper club tonight.”
Bumpy hung up, stuck two fingers into his mouth, and whistled down a cab.
“Harlem,” he said, getting in beside the driver. He knew it was like going to an afternoon matinee and sitting next to the only other person at the movies, but he liked riding shotgun.
He was looking forward to seeing a show tonight.
“When I perform it’s like sitting down at my piano and telling fairy stories,” King Cole always said before a show.
It was five months since he had been attacked in Birmingham, Alabama, during a show, when half-a-dozen white men swarmed over the footlights and rushed him, grabbing his legs, wrenching his back, taking him down to the floor of the stage before the police were able to break up the melee.
“Alabama is no place for immoral nigger rock and roll music,” said Willie Hinson the next morning standing in front of the storefront office of the White Citizen’s Council.
Bumpy had heard all about it. He had already killed one white man. He thought he might have to kill another one someday, if not for any reason, then on principle.
“Go out there and tell that kike across the street to get the hell away from here,” said Albert Anastasia, biting into a Holy Cannoli, the pastry full of pistachio ice cream nuts bits of chocolate. There was a glass of sweet wine at his elbow. He took a sip.
“Sure, boss,” a young strongman sitting beside the front door said.
The man in the car across the street looked like hell, seedy, big bags under his eyes, gray jowls, and a thick cigar stuck in his mouth. He was wearing baggy pants, scuffed shoes, a wrinkled gray shirt, and a loosely knotted worse for the wear Belly Warmer tie. A painted hula girl and palm trees swayed faded out on it.
The mob bodyguard was wearing a black shirt, razor-creased slacks, a skinny belt, and lizard shoes. He leaned into the Chevy. There was a camera on the passenger side of the seat. He didn’t give it a second look. He didn’t give the driver a second look, either.
“What do you want here, Weejee? It’s not even nighttime. There isn’t anything going on. No one is going down this afternoon. Jumping time is five in the morning when the liquor runs out. The boss says beat it.”
“I’m just waiting for a girl,” said Arthur Fellig in a high-pitched voice.
“What kind of girl is that?”
“A girl with a healthy body and a sick mind.”
“You got a sick mind.”
Arthur Fellig was a newshound photographer. His nom de guerre was Weejee.
“He always wanted to see the soul of the person. He wanted to see the essence of the person. And he certainly wanted to see the tits of the person,” said Judy Malina, who was once chased around Weejee’s apartment by the shutterbug. She escaped before he could get his paws on her boobs.
“You’re going to need some carbon tetra-chloride for that,” said the bodyguard, pointing to the beer stains on the hula girl.
“I like them on the wet side, not too icy and deadpan,” said the photographer.
“All right, enough with the wisecracks, why don’t you get in gear, maybe go down to Sussman Volk’s and take some pictures of the salamis and bolonies.”
“How about I stay right here?” said the photographer, exhaling a thick puff of smoke from his stogie.
The bodyguard stepped away from the noxious cloud coming out the car window. He looked down the street. He waved and snapped his fingers once. The policeman on the corner walked up to the car. Arthur Fellig could see the precinct numerals on the shield over the left breast of the man’s jacket. His black tie was knotted in a standard four-in-hand with a gunmetal tie clasp and he wore a blue military shirt with removable brass buttons.
“This man is bothering Mr. Anastasia.”
The policeman twirled his nightstick and rapped it briskly on the roof of the Chevy.
“Move along,” he said.
Arthur Fellig turned the engine over. “One day I’ll see him flat on his back, sooner than later, if I’ve been hearing it right, and I’ll get the shot, believe you me” he said to the bodyguard, and drove away.
Albert Anastasia motioned to the waiter for expresso.
“I got nothing against Jews,” he said to Luca Gravano. “I had plenty of kikes working for me back in the corporation days.” The corporation was the Brownsville Boys. The newspapers called it Murder Incorporated. After gunning down their man, they usually left the impression of a Black Hand on a piece of paper beside the body.
If they were in a hurry, they wore a black glove on their trigger hand and left it at that.
“Gurrah Shapiro, Kid Twist, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss. What the hell, Meyer and I still work some these days side by side in Cuba. As long as the Commies stay in the mountains, and Batista toes the line, it’s a gold mine down there.”
President Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection against Adlai Stevenson. The smart money was on Ike. He had gotten over his heart attack and was back eating pig knuckles and sauerkraut. Fidel Castro and his brother were aggravating the President with their penny arcade talk of invading Cuba and overthrowing Battista. Ike would take care of it after November. It was money in the bank, Albert told his associates.
Luca Gravano nodded, sipped his coffee, and ate one brutti ma buoni cookie after another from the plate in front of him. They were Tuscan cookies, northern style, but he had always had a taste for them, no matter being from the Mezzogiorno. They were called “ugly but good” and were made of almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, amaretto, and oranges.
Big Paulie came from Calabria, in the south of Italy, the same as Albert Anastasia. He had come by freighter to New York, the same as Anastasia and his brothers had done years before, jumping ship the same year Anastasia was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing for stabbing and strangling another longshoreman. But, after he got a new trial, almost everyone who had testified against him changed every single word of their testimony.
The other witnesses dropped off the face of the earth. The prosecutors threw up their hands. It was the way of the world cynical newspapermen told each over drinks.
After his release Albert Anastasia threw in with Joe “The Boss” Masseria, making book, hijacking, and running liquor. Ten years later he was one of four gunmen, along with Bugsy Siegel, who cut their boss down with a hailstorm of lead in a Coney Island diner.
Luca Gravano was the right-hand man under Tony Anastasia on the docks, which meant at the end he worked for Albert Anastasia. He had no problem with that. The only problem he had was staying on his toes wary and careful with the main man every second of every minute of every day.
The mob kingpin’s friends called him “The Executioner.” His brother “Tough Tony” called him “The Lord High Executioner.” Some of his friends and all of his enemies called him “The Mad Hatter.”
“He is one grand guy,” said Anthony Coppola, Anastasia’s sometime driver, sometime bodyguard, and most of the time crony. “Lots of people will cry when he’s gone.”
Big Paulie understood what Albert Anastasia wanted him to do. What he didn’t understand was why there were three bodyguards with them, one outside, and two in the restaurant at a nearby table. It must have shown on his face when he glanced around and behind him.
“I’m worried about my family,” Anastasia said.
“What do you mean?”
“Forget about it, forget about it.”
His wife and son lived in a mansion on an estate in Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from Manhattan in New jersey, surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire. The lawn was looked after by a pack of Doberman Pinschers. The dogs weren’t friendly, nor was the gunman who was always in the house. What was there to worry about?
There was the New York County District Attorney.
“Make no mistake about it,” the D. A. said. “These are real tough boys, and I mean really tough, but we’re tough, too.” He was pushing to get Anastasia into his office to talk about the murder of his ex-friend, Frank Scalise, a couple of months ago inside a fruit store in broad daylight.
But what was that going to come to? There weren’t any witnesses. Even if there were, there weren’t any witnesses.
Two years ago, it had been the murder of Vincent Macri, and the disappearance of his brother, Benedetto, both of them Anastasia bodyguards, that had gotten the city lawmen worked up. It had come to nothing. There was the disappearance of Charles Ferri and his wife Marie at about the same time, after the two of them testified against Anastasia in the income tax prosecution the Federals had brought.
Everybody knew Vincent Macri and Charley Ferri were friends. Everybody knew what had changed hands. Everybody knew it was going to come to nothing.
“You want me to make sure nobody gets to the doc, right, especially not the private cop.” said Luca Gravano, not exactly asking, but making sure exactly what “The Mad Hatter” was saying.
“That’s right,” said Albert Anastasia. “Nobody outside of his circle, outside of his work, nobody asking any questions.”
Luca Gravano knew now what Albert Anastasia wanted. He knew there was a secret and he didn’t need to be let in on it. There weren’t any more questions to ask, except one, to make sure he wouldn’t get the job at hand wrong in any way.
“If anybody gets too close?”
“You feed them to that lion of yours.”
“It’s a female, a lioness,” said Big Paulie.
“Even better,” said Anastasia. “A man-eater.”
“Where do you keep her?”
“In the basement of the store”
“That works for you?”
“Yeah, if we’re doing a shakedown, or if somebody owes us money, and won’t pay up, no matter what, we bring him to the store, and push him halfway down into the basement. We throw a slab of raw meat over his shoulder down to Cleo, that’s the cat. She roars her appreciation and there’s no arguing after that. We always collect.”
“That’s good, Luca, that’s good,” said Albert Anastasia.
“Luca Gravano is a savage,” said Chief Inspector Raymond Martin, head of the Brooklyn South detectives. “He held another man’s forearm between his hands and broke the bone over the edge of an office desk, as a way of collecting a debt owed to him. The man told the story to one of my detectives, but he was too frightened to sign a complaint, unless he be killed. He was killed later, anyway.”
“You take care of this, it’s important. You call me personally, day or night, if you have to,” said Anastasia.
He stood up, put on his hat, and followed his bodyguards out of the restaurant slowly and deliberately in his money-glow suit. Big Paulie had another cup of coffee and another plate of cookies. When he stepped outside, he threw a nickel down for a copy of the New York Daily News. Wall Street was up on a “rousing rally” of five points. The Woolworth heiress was in court, being sued by a Manhattan florist for not making good on $2,500 worth of flowers. He liked the dame’s style. The crime story on page 3 caught his eye when he saw the picture of George Rosen.
“There was a rubber death’s head mask, a grisly Halloween thing of gray and purple, on the seat beside small-time gambler George Rosen, 39, as he and a masked pal stepped from a stolen automobile in Brooklyn shortly before noon yesterday to stage a payroll robbery.”
George Rosen didn’t get far. In the picture he was lying on his back in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. He hadn’t even had time to slip on the Grim Reaper mask before he was shot dead.
He knew the man, and if he owed him money, Big Paulie thought, it didn’t matter anymore. He never went after the family. He would have, but It was bad business. There were always too many brothers and uncles.
He stepped off the sidewalk into the street and stuck his arm out like he meant to have the next cab. An “Otto” DeSoto Deluxe cruised up to his ankles. He got into the back, stretched out his legs, and looked up through the see-through roof. The V8 purred as it idled. The seats were green leather. There was plenty-and-more legroom.
He lit up a Camel.
“Where to, chief?”
“You got it.”
The suspension of the big car was roly-poly. It was like taking one of the ferryboats. He started thinking about what ma would be making for dinner. He liked Ossa Buco, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Pasta Primavera, with semolina bread, olive oil, and pesto on the side. His favorite was Chicken Tetrazzini, named after Luisa Tetrazzini, a soprano known as “The Florentine Nightingale.”
Luca Gravano’s headquarters was a small storefront in Brooklyn. The sign above the door said it was the Murphy Bed Company, agents and distributors. “The Disappearing Bed” was stenciled across one window. There were several demonstration models in the front showroom, although neither Luca nor his brothers had ever sold a single Murphy bed of any kind. Among themselves they joked it was “the foldaway trap for your worst enemies.”
He lived next door in an attached brownstone with three of his brothers and his mother.
“I don’t know anything about the mob. I don’t know anything about any organizations. I only know about my five children, four sons and a daughter,” Raffaella Gravano said one day when she was asked by detectives about the alleged killers, two of her own sons, of a rival bookmaker in front of a Bronx restaurant.
What she said to policemen wasn’t what she said at home.
“Women run the show in the south of Italy,” she told her sons. “Maybe our men come home with bloody boots, but I know how to cement guns inside walls. I hold my head high. I keep the memory of the dead alive.”
“Hey, driver, stop at Alleva’s when you go by,” Big Paulie said to the cab driver as they passed the Church of the Most Precious Blood.
“The cheese place?”
The Alleva Dairy cheese shop was at the intersection of Mulberry and Grand Streets. The windows were filled with printed and neon signs. Inside were ricotta, mozzarella, and the new hero sandwiches. Prosciutto hung from the tin ceiling.
“When I was young, there was one kind of prosciutto,” said one of the old-time butchers. “It was made in the winter, by hand, and aged for two years. It was sweet when you smelled it. A profound perfume. Unmistakable.”
Luca ordered a sandwich for himself and five pounds of in-bone prosciutto and a knob of fresh mozzarella for his mother. She liked hers sliced over fresh melon. He liked his wrapped around a breadstick. His brothers got the leftovers.
“When I find the original meal these leftovers have been coming from, I ain’t going to be sharing it with anybody,” said Frankie “Kid Blast” Gravano, one of his brothers. His two other brothers, Larry and Raymond, nodded solemnly that they were with Frankie, even though Frankie meant he was going to be keeping it all to himself.
Luca was the oldest of the four boys. Kid Blast was the youngest. Luca was the smartest of the four. Kid Blast was the most dangerous of the four. Luca had the authority in the family. Kid Blast wanted it.
He had taken a gunshot at Luca the summer before.
“I just blew my top. He said something about me I didn’t like. I purposefully missed him.”
Their sister, Carnellia, had been engaged to one of Vincent “The Chin” Gigante’s brothers, but backed out of the marriage. “I’m not marrying a peasant,” she said when she got the measure of the man. The jilted lover entered a seminary and was training to become a priest. Carnellia moved out of the family house, got an apartment in Greenwich Village, and went to work in pizzazz. Her new boyfriend, a third-generation German and a Protestant, who was an ad man at a Madison Avenue agency, got her a job writing TV commercials, making whatever might be nice into the must have.
She called her mother every Sunday night, but the Gravano boys had not spoken a word to their sister in more than a year. Luca flushed red the morning his mother wanted to invite Carnellia to dinner.
“She’s not coming here in her tight dress and that stuck up wise guy who thinks he’s better than us and we’re all wrongdoers, “he said. “I can see it in her eyes, ma. Except for you, she’s ashamed of us. I don’t want her in this house.”
“She’s your only sister, my only daughter,” said his mother.
“We’re from the Old World, and even though it’s the New World now, what we make for ourselves, in our own world, that’s our new place, and when Carnellia flips she can stay with her estraneo,” said Luca.
“We have our pride. When she steps on that she can’t come back here.”
Raffaella Gravano crossed her arms over her stomach, below her sagging breasts, grim and frustrated in her polka-dotted apron, her eyes speaking daggers.
“I’m the man of the house now, ma,” Big Paulie said. “Don’t bite my balls off.”
“It’s a hell of a good day for it,” said Dwight Eisenhower, smiling broadly.
It was going to be his first full round of golf since June. He had a heart attack last year. Then when this summer rounded into shape, he needed surgery for ileitis. The past week had been filled to the brim with the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Even though he had been unopposed, no need for a stampede, there had been some hard campaigning to get Dick Nixon off the ticket, to no avail.
Ike was president because it was his duty. Richard Nixon wanted to be president. He didn’t think of it as a duty. He wanted it for himself, in the executive’s chair, at the top. He didn’t think of it as a responsibility. He thought of it as his ambition.
“Any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy,” Ike told Turk, standing next to him with his clubs.
The Negro singer Nat King Cole had spoken at the Cow Palace yesterday, the last day of the convention, to some cheers and some jeers. Ike made the speech happen, no matter the carping about it. He knew he had to give in on the Vice-President, who was a hardline anti-Communist, who the rank-and-file supported with cheers. “I don’t want those Communist bastards to be successful,” Dick Nixon always said. But Ike knew he didn’t have to give in to Jim Crow, at least not always. He could take the high road and leave the jeering to the dirty tricks gang.
They drove up to Pebble Beach before the convention ended, before his VP could invite him to dinner. Besides, Richard Nixon’s father was seriously ill, and Ike urged him to go before it was too late. There were three cars full of Secret Service men fore and aft. Charlie Taylor, who’d been at it for years, was in one of the cars.
One night when Ike was having trouble opening his safe, and asked for help, his agents told him safecracking wasn’t part of their training. Ike was beside himself, giving them his ten-pound look. Charlie got the cranky combination to give in without a struggle. He had been an anti-submarine officer during the war. Safes weren’t safe when he got his hands on them.
“I won’t know whether to trust you, or not, after this,” said Ike, glancing at the trim crew-cut man.
Dwight Eisenhower was driven to his golf outing in a black Lincoln Cosmopolitan. It was one of ten presidential touring cars. They all had extra headroom to accommodate the tall silk hat Ike wore on formal occasions. The cars were almost 20 feet long, V8’s with Hydra-Matic transmissions, and heavily armored, weighing in at close to ten thousand pounds. One of them, a convertible, a 1950 model built for Harry Truman, had been fitted with a Plexiglas top.
Ike called it the Bubble Top. Charlie called it a pain-in-the-ass. Mamie Eisenhower didn’t like sitting under a dome, but she put up with it, like she had with everything else.
It was a high blue clear day, sunny, dotted with seaside clouds. A pocket-size breeze blew up from the water. It was slightly damp. Dwight Eisenhower nodded at his caddy.
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. President,” said Turk Archdeacon.
“Why, that’s fine,” said President Eisenhower.
Turk had been caddying at Cypress Point since he was nine years-old, almost 40 years since. They walked to the practice tee. It was a pleasant morning. Ike started whacking balls into the distance. He played Bobby Jones woods with the official five-star general insignia engraved on their heads. At the putting green he lined up three balls 20-some feet away from the cup.
He sank all three.
“I should quit right here,” he grinned.
He had been practicing on a green on the White House grounds, and been hitting wedges, irons, and 3-woods, sometimes sending balls sky-high over the south fence. Whenever he did, he sent his valet to retrieve them.
The squirrels that prowled the lawn dug up his putting green, burying acorns nuts hardtack all their loot. They left small craters behind. One morning he finally had enough. “The next time you see one of those goddamned squirrels go near my putting green, take a gun and shoot it!” The Secret Service asked the groundskeepers to trap the squirrels, instead, and release them in a park somewhere far away.
In a week August would be come and gone. He would be 66 years-old soon. “I’m saving that rocker for the day when I feel as old as I really am,” he said, pointing to the rocker in the Oval Office. More days now than not, he felt like that day was creeping close, step by step.
His birthday was in October. CBS was planning a “Person to Person” style TV show the night beforehand. Eddie Fisher was going to sing ‘Counting Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.’ Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel were going to sing ‘Down Among the Sheltering Palms.’ Nat King Cole, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, was singing ‘It’s Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet.’
He was looking forward to it.
In six weeks, he would be throwing out the first pitch for the first game of the World Series. There were five or six teams in the hunt, although the New York Yankees looked like a lock at least to get there. If he were a betting man, which he was, he would be putting his money on the Bronx Bombers.
He wouldn’t be in the Bubble Top, either, but in the Cream Puff, getting some sunshine and fresh air, what there was of it in New York City.
He liked Cypress Point because it was set in coastal dunes, wandered into the Del Monte forest during the front nine, and then reemerged on the rocky Pacific coastline. The last holes played right along the ocean. He’d played golf on many courses around the world. This was one of the best of them.
Dwight Eisenhower looked out over the par-5 10th hole. He had taken off his tan sweater, but still had a white cap on his head. Seven months ago, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, living legend professionals, had taken on the talented and skillful amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward in a white-knuckle friendly foursome at the same Cypress Point.
The same 10th hole turned out to be the key to unlocking that contest.
“I bet they can beat anybody,” said San Francisco car dealer Eddie Lowery about the two amateurs, who were his employees. He was talking to fellow millionaire George Coleman. The bet and the match were on in that minute.
Harvie Ward was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion. Three months later Ken Venturi came within one stroke of winning the Masters. The cypress-strewn rolling dunes of the course on the wind-swept coast, the deep ravines, knee-deep grass, sand on all sides of the fairways, weren’t redoubtable, not to them.
Ben Hogan turned the corner on the 10th when he rolled in a wedge shot for a 3. The eagle and 27 birdies testified to the unfriendliness of the match. The drinks at the bar rubber-stamped the camaraderie afterwards. There were backslaps and groans about made and missed shots.
Ike was playing with Harry Hunt, the president of Cypress Point, Sam Morse, a one-time football star who had developed Pebble Beach, and John McCone, a businessman who had been the undersecretary of the Air Force. He was partnered with Harry Hunt. They were playing a dollar-dollar-dollar Nassau bet. It was even-steven at the halfway mark, even though Ike had stunk up the 8th hole.
“Where is it?” he asked getting there, searching for the green on the 8th across the dogleg.
He sliced his tee shot into sand. When he got to it, he hit it less than ten feet further on. Then he hit it fat, the Ben Hogan ball soaring less than twenty feet, and falling into somebody’s heel print.
“I’ve had it, pick it up,” he said.
“Having a little trouble?” asked Sam Morse.
“Not a little,” said Ike, “but a lot.”
On the tee of the 17th hole Ike lined up his shot. Sea lions on the rocks below him barked. “It’s hard to hit a shot and listen to those seals at the same time,” he said, but not so either of the Secret Service agents with them could hear him.
Dwight Eisenhower was accustomed to having guards around him, during the campaign in North Africa, and later as commander of the Allied Army in Europe. The Nazis had tried to kill him several times. Secret Service agents near his person nearly every minute of the day was like a second skin. He knew what it took to save his skin. When he moved into the White House he didn’t mingle mindlessly, shake hands in crowds, or do anything foolish.
“Protecting Ike works like clockwork,” said agent Gerald Blaine.
Mamie Eisenhower gave her agents nicknames. One, who was a good dancer, was
“Twinkletoes.” He asked Mamie to keep it between themselves. Some of the agents called her “Mom.”
“You don’t have to worry about me, but don’t let anything happen to my grandchildren,” Ike told Secret Service chief U. E. Baughman.
The Diaper Detail guarded the four kids. Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the presidential retreat in Maryland from Shangri-La to Camp David in 1953. “Shangri-La is just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy,” he said. He renamed it in honor of his 5-year-old grandson, David.
When Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union leader, visited the retreat he said the name sounded like a place where “stray dogs were sent to die.” That’s the difference between us and them, thought Ike.
He looked for the fairway on the 18th hole.
“Where do we aim here?” he asked.
“Keep it away from the left,” said Harry Hunt. There was a stand of pine trees on the left. “That’s the Iron Curtain. You’ll never get through that stuff.”
Ike laughed and hit a long drive. His next shot was a 4-iron and he nailed it onto the green, 20 feet short of the pin.
In 1954 eighty people were convicted of threatening the president and sent to prison or locked away as madmen. In 1955 nearly two thousand honest-to-God threats were made against Dwight Eisenhower’s life. The year before, the Russian KGB officer Peter Deryabin, after defecting, told the CIA about a Soviet plot to kill the president in 1952.
“We were preparing an operation to assassinate Eisenhower during his visit to Korea in order to create panic among the Americans and win the war there.”
Whenever he played golf, stern-faced men with good eyesight and high-powered guns took up vantage points on hills, surveying the course with telescopic sights. Other agents, dressed in golf clothes, carried .351 rifles in their golf bags as they tagged along. In whatever parking lot the “Queen Mary,” an outfitted armored car, was the rolling command center.
Shortly after Mother’s Day the Secret Service investigated a threat to plant two boxes of explosives at a baseball park where the president was planning on taking in a game. “Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination,” Adolf Hitler had said not many years before. “This is the war of the future.”
Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Army derailed the Nazi night train. No one was going to take him by surprise. He was planning on sitting in his rocking chair one day, rocking back and forth, watching his grandchildren trundle on the carpeting.
He served in the armed forces from one end of his adult life to the other. After he retired, he was dean at Columbia, and then president of the country. He was still the president and, he was sure, he was going to beat Adlai Stevenson worse than he had four years ago. Adlai didn’t know how to talk to folks. He was full of bull.
Even though he’d commanded millions of men in the last war, Ike thought war was rarely worth going to war for. He hated it. It was a last resort. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
“Didn’t you once say that we are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it?” asked Harry Hunt.
“When we have to, but always remember, the most terrible job in the world is to be a second lieutenant leading a platoon when you’re on the battlefield. There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs. When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it themselves.”
The Cold War wasn’t as hot as it had been ever since Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality earlier in the year, as well as admitting the Man of Steel’s crimes, the outrages committed against Mother Russia. A door had been cracked open. Ike had long thought war settles nothing, even when it’s all over. He was afraid of the arms race, the march towards a nuclear catastrophe.
“You just can’t have that kind of war,” he told his inner circle. “There aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative” is what he had written and wanted to say at the Cow Palace, but didn’t, not with Dick Nixon and the Red Scare and the military hand-in-hand with industry. He wanted to call it what it was, a military-industrial complex that was always crying “fire” in a crowded theater.
But he couldn’t, at least not until after he was re-elected. In the meantime, he planned on speaking softly and carrying a big stick, even if it was only a long shaft wood driver, the biggest stick he had in his bag.
“Thanks for stopping by Mrs. Pollack,” Stan said when Lee Krasner was seated and smoking on the other side of his desk.
“I happened to be Mrs. Jackson Pollack and that’s a mouthful.” She let a jet of tobacco smoke from her Camel stream to the ceiling. “I’m a woman, Jewish, a widow, a damn good painter, thank you, and a little too independent, so call me Lee.”
“Lee it is,” Stan said, wondering why she called herself Lee, which was more often than not a man’s name, rather than her real name. Her name was Lenore. He knew she was an artist, but not a hit artist. Making it big in a man’s world might mean you had to be a man.
Betty was at her desk, typing a letter to a client, Tracy Broadstreet, who had made it big in the city. The address was upstate. An upstate women’s prison. Racy Tracy had been one of New York City’s highest paid pornographic screenwriter producer stars.
“At the time my career was brought to a sudden and final halt in the midst of screaming sirens and shouting cops, I was pulling down anywhere from $1500 to $2500 for a few hours work. Few people know the inside of the profession as well as I do. It’s the movies, the stag shows, that bring home the bullion in the sex racket. I know for sure. I was one of the stars.”
The Duluc Detective Agency was hired to somehow prove she had been duped into prostitution and everything had gone wrong from there. Betty hadn’t been able to find any proof that Racy Tracy wasn’t the lead man in her own downfall. The letter said so. The invoice, acknowledging payment that Stan had insisted be made in advance and never be refundable under any circumstances, said they had tried.
Lee Krasner wore her hair short, banks high up her forehead, had wide set eyes, a broad nose, and full lips. Stan thought she looked like an immigrant from Russia. She was wearing black from the waist down, black flatties and loose-fitting black slacks, a silver belt, and a red v-neck shell.
“Barney hired you, is that right?” she asked.
“Why?” she asked.
“He doesn’t think the accident was an accident.”
“Jack was a time bomb. His time had come.”
“Was he suicidal?”
“Yes, but do you mean, would he ever commit suicide?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Jack was suicidal, but he would never commit suicide. He didn’t have it in him. It’s like this. He liked dancing but he didn’t know how to dance. I’m a fairly good dancer. That is to say, I can follow easily. My husband was ghastly and stepped all over me. He didn’t like being ghastly, but he would never have killed himself over it, or anything else, for that matter.”
“Was he a good driver?”
“He was careful when he was sober and more careful when he was drunk, although he drove too fast. But he was always faster hitting the brakes when he had to. He drove like a crazy man to scare himself and other people. It was a kind of joke with him.”
“The tree he hit was fairly far off the road, but there isn’t any indication he ever tried to control the car.”
“Jack wasn’t always able to control himself, but he could always control his car. It wouldn’t be like him to not slam on the brakes once he started going off the road.”
“Barnett Newman is our client, but I still want to ask if you have any objection to us keeping at it, nosing around into the circumstances. We are thinking there is something going on, that it wasn’t what it looks like.”
Lee Krasner stubbed out her cigarette and stood up.
“Just promise you’ll tell me if that floozy had anything to do with it.”
Bettina looked herself up down and sideways in the full-length mirror. She was wearing a black and white swing dress with a full skirt, red cuffs trimmed just below the elbows of the three-quarter sleeves, and a red collar at the top end of three big black buttons. Underneath she wore a Playtex bra and girdle. Along with the dress she had on a black belt, black shoes, and black gloves.
“You look good,” she thought. “Straight from the fridge.”
She had a black short-strapped handbag slung from her wrist and a broad-brimmed red hat on her head. She lifted her chin, looking down at the middle of herself. It was her ping-pong games that kept her fit and the girdle that made her look trim.
She flashed a peek at her backside. Halfway out of her apartment door she paused, flipped the clasp on her handbag, and made sure she had an Anchor Life Insurance Company business card.
“Swank,” she thought, once on Park Avenue, looking around Dr. Robert Baird’s waiting room.
Everything was white, except for the floor and the two Barcelona chairs. The floor was gray, and the chairs were brown. The round receptionist’s desk was white, as was the sofa and small round table in front of the sofa. The ceiling was white, and the fluorescent lighting was bright white.
It was 8:35 in the morning on Friday.
“I’m here to see Dr. Baird,” said Betty.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“I don’t, but this will only take ten minutes of the doctor’s time. It’s about the death of one of his patients.”
She handed the receptionist her make-believe business card.
“His first appointment at nine hasn’t arrived yet. Let me see if he can see you.”
She was back in less than a minute.
“The doctor will see you,” she said.
“I love your outfit,” she said.
The receptionist was her own age.
“I got the dress on sale at Macy’s, splurged on the bag at Henri Bendel’s down in the Village, and everything else, well, I just picked it up here and there.”
Betty walked into Dr. Baird’s office. It was even whiter than the waiting room. The psychiatrist came around from behind his large desk, his arm extended, shook her hand, and offered her one of the two chairs at the front of the desk.
“How can I help you, Miss Cross, is it?” asked Dr. Baird, swiveling around in his chair to face her.
“Cross, Mrs. Betty Cross,” said Betty.
“A working woman.”
“Yes,” she said. “A working woman.”
There’s something oily about him, Betty thought in a flash, as though he were tossing her a few crumbs by just seeing her. She tried to keep the turn off out of her voice and off her face. She crossed her legs and pulled a spiral bound flip pad out of her pocketbook.
The receptionist sat doing nothing. She hadn’t gone to college for just a M. R. S. degree, meaning finding a husband and becoming a Mrs. She was in her mid-20s, neither married nor engaged. Everyone she knew had married right out of high school or while they were in college. Most of them got pregnant inside a year, and most of them were looking forward to their second and third child.
Her mother told her she was in danger of becoming an old maid.
“Better to die an old maid, mom, than marry the wrong man.”
She had her sights set on making money, a small fortune, at least, and stay a single woman, as sensible and respectable as anybody else.
She liked what she saw of the woman from the insurance company. That was what she wanted to be, someone on the go, not someone stuck behind a desk answering a phone and being polite to whoever walked in the door. She was going to make her own way or cry trying.
“We carried a policy on the life of Jackson Pollack, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to just ask a few questions about him,” said Betty.
“I don’t understand,” said Dr. Baird.
“We aren’t asking you to violate the doctor patient relationship, but we would like to know if, in your opinion, he had suicidal tendencies.”
“I’ve heard of Jackson Pollack, of course,” said Dr. Baird. “I’ve read about him in the papers, it seems he was larger than life, but I never treated him.”
“Oh,” said Betty. “It was our understanding he was one of your patients.”
“You were misinformed,” said Dr. Baird.
“He wasn’t seeing you about his drinking?”
Jackson Pollack drank heavy most of his life, starting when he was 15 years-old, on the road, when he was helping his father make topographic surveys of the Grand Canyon. He got psychiatric treatment on and off over the years to cure his alcoholism. Joseph Henderson, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Manhattan, found color sequences and symbols in the illuminated manuscript “Splendor Solis” and worked them into explaining Pollack’s dream images to him.
Jackson Pollack didn’t give a damn about the “Splendor Solis,” except when he was drinking and pumping himself up with the splendor. Nothing under dream sun sun cured him of it.
He got help avoiding patriotic mayhem from Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo. The war was on the horizon. She wrote the Selective Service System in 1941, after he got his draft notice.
“I have found Jackson Pollack to be an inarticulate personality of good intelligence, but with a great deal of emotional insecurity, who finds it difficult to form or maintain any kind of relationship. It has become evident that there is a certain schizoid disposition underlying his instability. I venture to suggest that Pollack be referred for a psychiatric examination.”
He was declared unfit for military service. He got re-acquainted with Lee Krasner. They went drinking and dancing. They went to house parties. They got married in a hurry. He broke through to the other side.
After the war he slowed down, finally stopped drinking, and did his best work, but after the summer of 1950 he took his first drink in two years and from then on stopped painting and drank heavily until his death. Whenever he was soused at the Cedar Tavern up-and-coming artists walking past him always tried to touch him for good luck.
“That’s a fucking mistake, get your goddamned hands off me!”
The more he drank the less he worked. “I don’t have anything more to say,” he told his homeopathic physician Dr. Elizabeth Wright. “What’s the point?”
“I’m sorry about wasting your time,” said Betty.
“That’s quite all right,” said Dr. Baird.
Betty retrieved her hat from the coat rack stand. The wall on that side of the office was filled with a ball clock, diplomas, certificates, a letter from the mayor, artsy black-and-white photographs, and a small drawing in a steel frame at the far end.
It was a pencil drawing of a man-beast, naked, on his haunches, leaning forward, his nose like a snout, and a snake winding out of his mouth. The initials JP in small squiggly letters were hidden away at the bottom, just in sight beneath the man’s calf.
“That’s an interesting drawing,” said Betty, fixing her hat.
“Oh, that. It’s creepy, if you ask me. It was done by one of those new city artists, the one who died a few months ago.”
“The one who crashed his car?”
“Yes, that one. I read all about it in the papers. He was a drunk. He killed one of the girls in the car with him.”
“Did Dr. Baird know him?”
“Oh, yes, he treated him for months, from about March or April.”
“That picture might be worth a lot of money one of these days.”
“You think so?”
“I would keep my eye on it,” said Betty.
After she left, but before she had gotten to the elevator, the receptionist was giving the small drawing a long look, her finger to her chin. She turned back to her desk when she noticed the phone blinking.
“Hold my first patient for a few minutes,” said Dr. Baird.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
He dialed the number he’d been given in case of an emergency.
“I had a visitor this morning, a woman who claimed to work for an insurance company that
carried a policy on Jackson Pollack’s life,” he said.
“What did she want?”
“She wanted to know if Pollack had ever exhibited suicidal tendencies, if I had been treating him for that.”
“What did you say?”
“I said Jackson Pollack had never been my patient.”
“That was a mistake.”
It wasn’t a mistake from Dr. Baird’s point of view. He planned on being far from New York City by the end of next week, before whatever was supposed to happen happened, hoping to be more than a half million dollars to the good, almost a million with what he had squirreled away in Switzerland, far away in a sunny Mediterranean world in a villa where no one would ever find him for the rest of his life. He wasn’t even waiting to be paid the balance owed him for the work he had done on Tony de Marco. He suspected the rest of his life depended on getting as far away from New York City as he could, the sooner the better.
“All right, sit tight, we’ll take care of it. What was the broad’s name and who did she say she worked for?”
“He said Jackson Pollack was never a patient of his,” said Betty after getting back to the office.
“We’ve got it from Barney Newman and the wife that he was,” said Stan. “Why would he lie about it when it’s easy enough to double-check through it?”
“He might be buying time, for some reason.”
“That’s a thought,” said Stan. “Let’s see if Ezra’s up for some second-story work, do a little digging, get into his files.”
Ezra broke into Whistler Dental Specialists on the fourth floor twenty minutes after they locked up at four o’clock on the Wednesday the following week. He waited tilted back in a dental chair and five hours later broke into Dr. Baird’s office. An hour later he had Jackson Pollack’s file laid out on the receptionist’s desk in front of the Minox spy camera Otis had given him. When he was done photographing it, he returned the file, and removed the film from the camera.
He was wearing a black t-shirt, dark khaki’s, and a brown newsboy cap. He taped the film to the top of the cap’s brim and snapped the bonnet securely to the brim. He put a fresh roll of film into the camera. He tucked the camera away behind the fabric divider in his right front pocket. He waited until it was more than an hour after midnight. He took the fire escape to the first floor and walked out the back door.
He hadn’t taken two steps before he felt, not yet hearing or seeing them, the two men. A slapjack broke his nose. He hit the ground like a bag of potatoes. A big man yanked him to his feet and slammed him against the wall. He turned him around. A smaller thick man with sharp front teeth and a black felt pork pie hat stepped in front of him.
“Hey, don’t I know you,” he said, talking to Ezra’s broken nose.
“No,” said Ezra.
“Sure, I do, you’re the zigzag man from down on the docks,” he said, and hit Ezra twice fast high on both sides of his face with the jack.
“Fuck you!” Ezra spit, screaming, and the man hit him in the mouth. Ezra tried to kick him, flailing his legs, but the man danced away, and then darted in, jabbing him hard in the ribs with the butt end of the slapjack. Ezra felt something crack and slumped in the big man’s arms.
“You’re in a world of hurt, Jew man,” the pork pie man sneered. “What were you doing in there? You tell me or we will take you to another world.”
Bumpy Williams was suddenly behind them, tense.
“Let’s beat feet,” said Bumpy. “Radio car just pulled up, blocking that way, they’re coming fast. We got to go the other way.”
The big man let Ezra flop to the ground and the three men walked away, quietly briskly melting away.
One of the Radio Motor patrolmen rolled Ezra over.
“Mother of Jesus, you got a bad dose of it,” he said, looking at his face.
The other policeman came back.
“Gone,” he said. “They must have had a car waiting.”
“Let’s get this one to the hospital.”
They helped Ezra to their green, black, and white Ford Tudor RMP, a lit-up ‘Police’ sign on the white roof, one of the policemen sitting in the back seat with Ezra, his battered head in his lap, the other, siren wailing, making the short fast drive to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital.
It was half past three in the morning by the time Stan and Betty pulled up chairs next to Ezra’s bed on the seventh floor. A police guard sat outside the door.
“You look bad,” said Stan
“I feel better,” he said. “They doped me up.”
“Do you know who it was?”
“One of them was the rat face who’s usually with Big Paulie. The other one, I never saw, he had me from behind. I saw his hands, though. It looks like he was a fighter once. There was an eggplant who came running up when the cavalry got there, but I didn’t recognize him.”
“OK, we’ll get them. Did you find anything?”
“Yeah,” said Ezra, his voice muffled by the drugs and swollen busted lip. “The film is in my hat.’
“I need two, three days,” said Ezra.
“Take your time,” said Stan.
In the hallway Stan stopped, the policeman stood up, and Betty kept her hand on the doorknob.
“Not to worry,” said the uniformed officer. “One of us will be right here until he’s discharged.”
“Get Karol and Bartek first thing in the morning,” Stan said to Betty when they were outside. “Tell them what I want and tell them I want it by the end of the week, all three if they can do it, but rat face, for sure. I don’t care how they do it, just so long as it gets done.”
“It’ll get done,” said Bettina, a sour metallic taste in her mouth.
Stan hailed a taxi for her.
She got in and he waved the cabbie to go.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said.
The cab turned away into the almost quiet pre-dawn Manhattan morning.
It was hot and humid all up and down the east coast. It was hotter and more humid in Hell’s Kitchen. It was in the 90s and stagnant. The heat was trapping the humidity in the air. It didn’t matter. Dottie was playing stickball in the street.
The street wasn’t West 56th. She wasn’t about to break a sweat about that. Her father had told her to never play stickball on their own street. The fronts and windows of buildings were ruled home runs. Stan didn’t want any broken windows near where they lived. Dottie and her friends always played on West 55th or West 57th.
A boy bigger than her teased her about it, pushing her to the ground.
“You always do everything your old man tells you to do, squirt?” he said, curling his lip, looking down and straddling her.
She had a broom handle stick her hands. Looking up from the gutter she whacked him as hard as she could between his legs. When the boy’s father showed up at their apartment that night to complain that his son might never grow up to be a father, Stan threw the man out, dragging him down the stairs by his collar, threatening him and all of his family and friends with harm if they ever laid hands on his daughter again.
“You think I’m fooling, look up my police record,” he yelled gone deliberately red in the face in the ashy face of the man when they were on the sidewalk. He calmed down in an instant the instant he was back in the house. He jogged upstairs.
“You did the right thing Dottie,” he told his daughter. “If somebody says something rotten to you, be a lady about it. But if somebody pushes you, or grabs you, or hits you, you hit them back as hard as you can. You always do that. That’s so they won’t push you down again.”
“OK, dad,” she said.
It was a good day for stickball. Eight kids showed up, they picked their teams, and Willy, her friend from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, brought a new pinky ball. It wasn’t a Pensy, either. It was the cream of the crop, a Spalding Hi-Bounce.
They drew a square rectangle in chalk on the brick wall at the back of a vacant lot on West 55th to represent the strike zone. The buildings on both sides were the foul lines. They chalked first and third base on the building walls and second base was a manhole on the sidewalk. If a batted ball hit any of the buildings across the street, it was a home run. If it hit a roof it was a home run-and-a-half. If it hit a window they ran like hell.
“There ain’t no runs-and-a-half,” a snot-nosed kid from Chelsea, who was visiting his cousins, sneered and leered.
“If you’re going to play stickball on West 55th, you better learn Hell’s Kitchen rules,” gibed Willy.
Dottie was batter up. She smacked a hot grounder, but it was caught on the first bounce, and she was out. Willy got as far as third base, but three strikes and you’re out finished their inning. By the time they came back up in the second they were behind by five runs. It wasn’t looking good for the home team.
“All right, all right, let’s pick it up, let’s get some roofies,” yelled Willy, urging his team on. “But chips on the ball. I mean it.” He meant that if his new Spaldeen was roofed, and couldn’t be found, everyone would chip in to pay for a new ball.
Hal came up to the plate, wagged the broom handle menacingly, and planted his high-top rubber soled Keds firmly in the squishy unravelling asphalt. They were new and felt like Saturday shoes. His batted ball hit the side wall at third base where the wall met the ground and bounced back to home plate in a high slow arc.
“It’s a Hindoo,” he shouted.
“No, that ain’t a do-over, it’s a foul ball, so it’s a strike,” shouted back Dave Carter, who everyone called Rusty because his hair was red.
“What do you know?”
“I know what I gotta know.”
“Go see where you gotta go,” said Hal.
“No, you stop wasting my time,” said Rusty. “It was a foul ball.”
“Ah, go play stoopball,” shouted Hal.
Stoopball was throwing a pinky against the steps of a stoop, and then catching it, either on the fly or on a bounce. Catching the ball was worth 10 points. Catching a pointer on the fly was worth 100 points. A pointer was when the ball hit the edge of a step and flew back like a line drive, threatening to take your eye out. When you played stoopball, you played against yourself.
“You got a lotta skeeve wichoo,” Rusty shouted back at Hal.
“All right, already, strike one,” said Willy, exasperated.
He knew Rusty would never give in. He was a weisenheimer. He was someone you had to keep your eyes on, too, or your Spaldeen might grow legs. It wasn’t that Rusty was a thief. He just kept his nickels in his pocket, and everything else, too. Willy had heard he was such a tightwad he still had his communion money from two years ago.
Rusty had been born in Philadelphia. That was his problem. Willy sympathized, slightly.
Hal hit a cheap on the next pitch, a slow roller, but when Rusty let his guard down, reaching leisurely down for the Spaldeen, it went between his legs, and the next instant Hal was standing at first base, smirking.
“Comeback stickball,” he whispered to himself. “Our game.”
Eleven batters later Dottie’s team was on the plus side of the scoreboard, nine to five.
The woman sitting on the stoop across the street watching her windows watched Dottie and her friends walk down the sidewalk, when the game was over, one of them bouncing his pinky, all of them talking happily.
“We killed them, just killed them,” said Willy.
“We sure did,” said Hal.
“What a game!” said Dottie.
“Yeah, first we were down, came back big, you put some Chinese on that ball between Rusty’s legs, they slipped ahead, and then we score fourteen just like that, and it’s all over.”
“Did you see him, the putz, pulling that long face?” asked Hal.
“Oh, he’ll be back, no biggie, he loves playing on the street,” said Dottie.
Dottie was so glad her team had fought and won. They scrapped for every run. It was worth it. She didn’t mind losing once in a while, but she liked winning better. She stripped off her hot sweaty clothes, rubbed down with a cool sponge, and put on a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
She put her stick away in a corner beside her bedroom window. In the summer she loved her friends, no matter what team they were on, and loved playing stickball with them more than anything in the world. When it was wet and windy, the pinky and chalk and sticks stashed, and they were clambaking the grapevine, it always flipped its way back to playing ball.
The last bottles of liquid nitroglycerin were tucked into the cavity Tony the Phil dug out to the side of the base of the drain under center field where it met the larger storm drain. It sloped away under right field from there to Bedford Avenue. The tiles he pried away he tidily carefully anxiously replaced. When he threw the beam of his flashlight directly on the wall, he could hardly see that any tiles had ever been disturbed.
Sure, the Dodgers still had to sweep the Pirates to win the pennant, but it was more than doable. The Buccos were almost 20 games under .500, even with an outfield featuring Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente. They had nothing to play for. On top of that, they would be playing at packed to the gills Ebbets Field, a doubleheader on Saturday and the last game of the season on Sunday.
Brooklyn had everything to play for, including doubling up on the Yankees, doing what they did in 1955 again in a subway series rematch. If he were a betting man, which he wasn’t, since he couldn’t afford to throw money away, he would bet on the Bums.
He would have bet the nitro was going to be a problem, but when he picked it up at the deli, the first package yesterday and the second package today, it hadn’t been any problem, at all.
“Nah, it ain’t gonna blow you up,” the counterman said. “We keep it in the cooler, so it stays stable. It’s packed in ice, so you’ve got a couple of hours. It’s as safe to handle as a baby. It won’t bite you. Just don’t drop it. You know how babies are.”
His yellow jacket, yellow TNT sewn into it, was all ready and safely ready in the back of his locker. When he pulled the ripcord on it, standing where he was now standing, all hell would break loose on Wednesday. There wouldn’t be any World Series after that.
He was calm ready steady. There wasn’t anything left to do, except to wait. If the Bums ran the table, then the table was set for blowing the commander-in-chief to kingdom come.
A stab of pain on both sides of his head buckled Tony’s knees. His chin fell into his chest and his hands flew to his temples. His eyes watered. “What the fuck?” He went down to the ground, like a dog, his head hanging. He started to pant like a dog.
“Fuck me!” he spit whispered to himself.
His headaches had been getting worse all summer, not better, but this was the worst of them. A grand slam was worse than a single if you were on the wrong side of it. He was on the wrong side of the slam. Five minutes passed before he opened his eyes and cautiously brought his head up. He put his hands on the wall to bring himself to his feet. It was no good. He went back down on all fours and crawled out of the storm drain.
He felt better once he made it outside. He stumbled getting up and lurched out of the ballpark. It was a sunny day. He needed some sun.
The Brighton Beach Health Resort at 5th Street and Brightwater Court was a wide beat-up plank platform in front of a corrugated fence. Behind the fence was a parking lot. Parking on weekdays was 25 cents for two hours and 35 cents for three hours. Weekdays the cost was a flat 15 cents an hour. It didn’t matter to him. He didn’t have a car. He took a bus and walked the rest of the way.
Behind the parking lot were rows of five-story walk-ups. In front of the Health Resort was the Brighton Beach Boardwalk. The Lower Bay spread out as far as the eye could see. The four-foot painted letters on the fence said, “Health Resort” and smaller letters to the side said “Sat. Sun 20 cents per hr. Weekdays 15 cents per hr. “
A small billboard to the side advertised soda pop. The sign said, “7 Up Likes You.”
Tony the Phil didn’t drink 7 Up because he didn’t like Fresh-up Freddie, the mascot rooster for the soft drink. Freddie dressed in flashy clothes, drove a red sportster, and was free and easy with advice about how to plan fun successful picnics and parties by having plenty of 7 Up on hand. Tony didn’t go on picnics, except by himself, and was rarely invited to parties. He drank Dr. Pepper.
It was “The Friendly Pepper Upper.”
He threw down three dimes for two hours and found a chaise lounge in the second row of chairs. There were four rows. Everyone got the same bright beams of sunlight, no matter what row they were in. The backrest was adjustable to three positions. He set it back two stops, wiggling into the cushions.
The woman next to him was a middle-aged logjam in a long-sleeved black jacket and a black knee-length skirt. She was wearing orthopedic black shoes. The woman’s chin bobbed softly on the folds of her neck. Her hands were folded over her gut and she was breathing softly. Next to her was a young blonde woman in a two-piece bathing suit, her hair pulled up under a white kerchief. On the other side of him were two middle-aged men, one in a red shirt and the other in a blue shirt, their sleeves rolled up.
“I tell you, he ain’t gonna make it,” said the man in the red shirt. “I like Ike, but he should have stepped aside for a younger man.”
“He’s made it this far,” said the man in the blue shirt. “I’ve seen younger men drop dead for no reason at all. He’s got plenty of good reasons to stay on his feet.”
“You know, my temperature’s risin’, and the jukebox blows a fuse, my heart’s beatin’ rhythm, and my soul keeps on singin’ the blues, roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
Tony the Phil glanced at the blonde in the two-piece suit. She had a transistor radio banded to her wrist and her wrist near her ear. The radio was gray with a gold tuning dial. It was the closest Tony had been to one of the gadgets.
“That one of those new pocket radios?”
“It’s a Regency,” she said. “I’m listening to WINS, the Alan Freed Show.”
“1010, easy to remember, easy to dial,” said Tony.
“Spinnin’ the discs with finesse, just set your dial to 1010 awhile, to WINS.”
He listened to Bob Garrity’s live late night “Jazz from Birdland” sometimes, after night games, when he couldn’t sleep in the dank stuffy dark air of his apartment.
The first night game at Ebbets Field had been played almost twenty years ago. Some of the old-timers still talked about it. A fife and drum corps marched up and down the outfield. Jessie Owen ran a series of sprinting exhibitions. Johnny Vander Meer, a lanky twenty-two-year-old southpaw, threw a no-hitter for the Bums. Leo Durocher came up in the top of the ninth down three, two outs, and the bases loaded after three straight walks, but Vander Meer got Leo the Lip to hit a loser’s pop-up that shut the lights out on the Reds.
“See you later alligator, after ‘while crocodile, can’t you see you’re in my way now, don’t you know you cramp my style.”
The crowd went wild. Popcorn peanuts beer were thrown up into air. Johnny Vander Meer was mobbed by his teammates.
“I said wait a minute ‘gator, I know you mean it just for play, and this is what I have to say, see you later alligator, after ‘while crocodile.”
Everybody young was listening to rock-n-roll, the new music. Whoever heard of Elvis Presley before the transistor radio? Now he was down for five of the Billboard Top 20 songs. Doris Day was in the Top 10, but time was running out for her and Dean Martin and Perry Como. It was time for Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent and Frankie Lymon.
“Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que sera, sera, what will be, will be.” That’s the way it was shaping up to be.
“I heard those things cost an arm and a leg,” said Tony.
“I don’t know,” said the blonde. “My boyfriend got it for me. He said it fell off a truck.”
She laughed, full-mouthed, bright and happy.
The logjam in black between them shifted her weight. The chaise lounge groaned. She had been gurgling snoring quietly, but now stopped. The blonde turned back to Tony.
“Oh, wait, this is my favorite song by Pat Boone,” she said suddenly.
It was ‘I Almost Lost My Mind.’ The girl bobbed to the song. Tony stayed still.
“I went to the Gypsy and had my fortune read, I went to see a Gypsy, I had my fortune read, I hung my head in sorrow when she said what she said.”
He remembered the song from the time before he went to Korea. It was a big hit then by Ivory Joe Hunter, not by no Pat Boone. Ivory Joe was Ivory Joe’s given name, not a stage name. He was the Baron of the Boogie. He wasn’t the cheery youngster from Florida who covered R & B hits for Dot Records. He wasn’t the wholesome Pat Boone who the high school girls loved. He wasn’t just piggybank jiving.
“Jesus H. Christ,” his head hurt again.
He had felt better for a half-hour, the warm sun making him hum, but now his head was pulsing. He felt hot, not warm. Some kind of brown was ooze creeping in on the edge of his vision. He was nauseous and woozy.
“Oh yes I’m the great pretender, ooh, ooh, adrift in a world of my own, ooh, ooh, I play the game but to my real shame, you’ve left me to dream all alone.”
“Hey mister, are you all right?”
Tony heard the blonde the second or third time she asked, even though he wasn’t sure what she was saying.
“I was asking if you’re all right.”
“Headache, bad headache,” he said.
“I got some Bayer in my handbag.”
She pulled a red and black box bag out from under her chaise lounge, flipped the clasp open, and shook out two white tablets of aspirin. He swallowed them dry. They didn’t do him any good, though, not then or ever.
“Thanks,” he said, getting up, sketchy.
“Are you going to be OK?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
He couldn’t take a bus or a subway. He was goddamn wobbly. He needed to see the doc as soon as possible. Behind him the blonde lifted an Oscar Mayer thin-sliced bologna and cheese sandwich slathered with mayo and mustard out of her bag. Taking a bite, she watched Tony the Phil stutter down the plank boardwalk. He waved for a cab, getting in gingerly, slumping slightly forward.
“Don’t know what they’re doing, but they laugh a lot behind the green door, wish they’d let me in so I could find out, what’s behind the green door.”
Uptown, Dr. Robert Baird put down his menu. He had a dirty martini at hand, although the olive brine hadn’t replaced the vermouth, but rather gone along with it. He liked it that way. The glass was cloudier than a traditional martini.
“I’ll have the Omelette Maison to start and the Sangue de Boeuf a la Milanaise for my lunch,” he said.
“Very good, thank you, sir,” said the waiter.
He was at the Quo Vadis restaurant, on the ground floor of the Leonori Building at East 63rd Street off Madison Avenue, having a late lunch alone in a quiet corner. His office was on the corner of East 66th and Park Avenue, in a 12-story building across the street from the Park Avenue Armory. He practiced his craft on the 5th floor. It was a ten-minute stroll from his office to the restaurant. He always walked, rain or storm under an umbrella or shine.
The Quo Vadis was opulent, heavy with columns and red velvet, Italian mosiacs in the entry, and the two restaurateurs, Gino Robusti and Bruno Caravaggi, paraded the dining room at night in tuxedos. Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole ate there. Frank Sinatra was one of the few diners not required to wear a tie during dinner. Nevertheless, he always wore a tie, out of respect.
Dr. Baird was hungry. He was almost famished, having missed breakfast. He finished his omelet and ordered another martini. When he thought about it, he knew his special patient was falling apart, but there was only so much he could do. The problem was the time it was taking. It was taking too long getting to D-Day. The man’s headaches had been getting worse. There was less than a week to go, but he was concerned.
He had been using scopolamine to fine-tune the hypnosis sessions, and there hadn’t been any adverse effects, no dry mouth, no itching, or hallucinations. Headaches weren’t listed in the literature as an adverse effect. He was puzzled, although not surprised, by the headaches. The literature wasn’t always right. Jackson Pollack had come down with several migraine-like headaches in July.
If it happens again, I’ll use a strong narcotic again, he thought, biting into his beef.
It was the first time he had ordered the Sangue de Boeuf at Quo Vadis. It was literally melting in his mouth. This is absolutely delicious, he realized, at the same time resenting that he was seeing Tony de Marco stumbling past a surprised annoyed waiter’s outstretched arms towards his table.
“Doc, you gotta help me.”
“It’s all right, Lorenzo,” Dr. Baird said to the waiter. “Help him into his seat and bring a glass of ice water.”
Tony’s face was flushed, and he looked like he might explode. A side effect of scopolamine was dyshidrosis, a reduced ability to sweat in order to cool off. Tony gulped down a tumbler of water and Dr. Baird ordered another.
“Doc, I’ve been getting worse headaches,” said Tony. “The dope you gave me helped, but it doesn’t help anymore. I need something more to keep my head screwed on straight.”
Dr. Baird went back to his beef while he watched Tony. He knew he was going to have to get him back to the office, but he wanted to finish his lunch first. He had an enormous fondness for delicious food. He was willing to miss dessert but wasn’t willing to walk away from his entrée.
“Drink a little more water, and we’ll go in a few minutes, as soon as you’ve cooled down. I’m sure we’ve got something that will help you,” said the psychiatrist, lifting another forkful of Sangue De Boeuf to his mouth.
“My head is killing me.”
“I want your body temperature to go down a little first,” the doctor said, stalling, looking down at his plate. There were only a few bites left. He quickly lifted another slice of beef with his fork. He saw Lorenzo approaching their table and made eye contact. He gestured a phantom signature in the air. The waiter understood and made a u-turn.
When Dr. Baird and Tony walked past the bar to the front door, Tony supported at the elbow by the doctor, Stan Riddman, sitting at the bar, looked down into the bourbon in front of him. There were three ice cubes in the glass. He liked the way the bourbon got along with the cold.
On the street the doctor hailed a cab. Walking past them, Stan overheard the address the doctor gave the cabbie, and decided to walk. He would be there practically at the same time, anyway. The cab was pulling away from the curb of East 66th and Park when he got there. He watched the two men enter the building, waited a moment, and followed them inside. They were standing at the elevator, their backs to him. He watched them get inside the elevator, and when he saw it stopped on the 5th floor, he walked across the lobby to the pay phone.
“You might have hit the nail on the head about the little man,” he said when Betty answered the office phone. “He’s with our bird.”
“Where are you?”
“In the lobby of the doc’s building,” he said.
“Are you going for the bum’s rush?” she asked.
“Yes, get the guys over here as fast as possible, Bartek behind the building, and Karol with me,” he said. “You be with the car in the alley on the Madison side.”
“Give me ten minutes.”
“It’s going to happen fast, stay on your toes”
“Don’t worry about our end. Oh, one last thing, you are going to grab the both of them?”
“You bet I am.”
The shrink wouldn’t be any problem. He would shrink down to size fast enough. Karol would escort him out on his elbow. The dago might be a problem. He looked nervous and wracked up about something. Ten minutes gave him just enough time to have a square. He leaned against the wall next to the pay phone and lit a Camel. He slowly exhaled twin plumes of smoke through his nostrils and waited for Karol. Bartek would be on his scooter in the alley, waiting idly.
Stan waited behind his cigarette smoke, the clock in his head ticking.
The mistake Bumpy Williams made was having two beers for lunch on an empty stomach. He wasn’t hungry, but he was thirsty, so he had two instead of one. The other mistake he made was breaking his number one no break rule, which was never assume anything.
“It can make an ass of you,” George Benta said at the funeral home when his men mixed up two dead men in what they thought were the right coffins but were the wrong coffins and had to dig them up and bury them again.
“Hey, don’t worry about it, mistakes are just another way of getting the right thing done,” Bumpy said to George’s long face.
He assumed Stan Rittman, frog-marching the Park Avenue headshrinker out the door of his office building in the hubbub of the 5 o’clock Friday going home rush, down the sidewalk, and into the alley, was alone. He saw the car, the open back door, and got to within a step of the peeper, but he never saw Karol.
Stan saw Bumpy coming but stayed in step with doing what he was doing, not skipping a beat. Never interrupt anybody when he’s making a mistake was one of his cardinal rules. It had always stood him in good stead at the poker table. The only person he interrupted tripping over her own two feet was Dottie.
“Hands where I can see them, nigger,” said Karol.
The third mistake Bumpy made was whirling around, blackjack suddenly in his hand, and whirlpooling his temple into the swinging blunt butt end of Karol’s Colt .45 pistol. The street tilted up to meet his pole-axed face, his knees gone weak as a baby’s, his brain blank as a bubble.
“Who’s he?” asked Karol.
“Who cares, in the trunk with him,” said Stan.
Bartek smirked up a storm, bringing up the rear.
Betty tossed the car keys out the window, Karol snatched them out of the air, and dragging Bumpy Williams by his armpits the woozy man’s heels hopscotch bumping to the back of the Pontiac, strong-armed the blank-faced Negro into the trunk.
“You still have a chance, but I hear a sound out of you, it’ll be the last sound you make, and no hard feelings,” Karol said, his mouth close to Bumpy’s ear. They looked straight at each other. Bumpy tried to make his eyes say he understood. Karol gave him a pat on the shoulder.
“Good,” he said.
“Let’s go,” said Stan, getting into the back seat on one side of the doctor, Karol on the other side. “Stick your chin into your chest, and keep it stuck there,” Stan to Park Avenue. Karol tied a blue and yellow bandana over the psychiatrist’s eyes. Betty put the car in gear and eased into traffic. Less than a half hour later they pulled up to the back of the Warsaw Baking Company in Little Poland.
Bartek was already waiting at the rear door, leaning against the brick wall, a smoke dangling from his lips. He had ridden his Twin out of the alley and beaten all the traffic. The Marman Twin was a motorcycle made in California by a company owned by one of the Marx Brothers, Zeppo Marx. Its engine was a drone airplane engine from World War Two. The ride was a nimble zippy ride.
“You two bring the colored man,” said Stan, leading Dr. Baird hard by the elbow into the building. “Handcuff him in the boiler room. We’ll get to him after the shrink.”
“What about the little man?” asked Bartek.
“He was gone,” said Stan. “We’ll find out who what and where he is. You and Karol sit tight. This won’t take long. He’s posh. He’ll fold fast.”
Betty parked the car and followed Stan. She bolted the door behind her, took two steps down into the basement, but went back up to double-check the door. It was bolted fast. It was a metal door, a heavy metal door.
The Warsaw Baking Company was a two-story brick building between Nassau and Driggs Avenues. One side of the front of the building was double doors and two loading docks. The other side was a single door leading up to a bakery shop. It closed at 5 o’clock. It was closed now. There were two glass block basement windows. There was one door at the back, and it was locked tight.
Karol stayed with Bumpy, cuffed to a pipe and sprawled on the concrete floor. Bartek walked around to the front of the building and hopped on the ledge of one of the loading docks. He leaned back, pushed his flat cap off his forehead, and lit a cigarette. The late afternoon early fall sunlight felt good on his face. A pretty girl he recognized walked by. He delivered a wolf whistle by air mail.
“Save that for the girls who don’t know the real you, Bart,” she said, smiling wickedly as she walked past.
“You’re cooking, doll.”
Bartek lived three blocks away, and Karol lived a block from him, in Little Poland, hard on the East River. Everything and everyone were Polish, drug stores, groceries, hair salons, newsstands, and social clubs. Hardware stores and dentists and shoeshine stands advertised their wares and services in the native tongue. The young men had both gotten out of Europe in 1948 when they were both still teenagers and both orphaned for the rest of their lives.
They worked at the bakery and did odd jobs on the side. One of their sidelines was doing odd jobs for Stan Riddman. It kept them in going out money, going out with girls, going out to ballgames, and going out to eat. They ate at Czerwony Wreprz, what everyone called the Red Pig, once a week, where they always ordered the signature dish, a whopping meal for four served in a wooden boat, sausages, pierogies, baked hocks, bacon, stuffed cabbage, grilled pork shoulder, and chicken.
“You eat this, you’ll be happy for a week,” the cook said
The Red Pig looked more like an old country farmhouse than a big city bar and restaurant, with a long deep bar and plenty-and-more Polish beer on tap. A white bird on a red background was stopped in space over the front door. A sign beneath the big bird said “Zapraszamy!” It meant you were welcome to enter. The waitresses dressed in traditional folk dresses. Wooden beams lined the ceiling from front to back, lights hung on wagon wheels, and the booths chairs tables were all dark walnut polished to gleam in the thick cigarette smoke.
Ezra was in the half-empty odds-and-ends room in the basement when Stan came in, Dr. Baird ahead of him, and Betty behind them. He was tucked into a back corner, his arms folded across his chest, quietly waiting, not angry anymore, but biding his time. Stan sat the psychiatrist in a chair at the table in the middle of the room and lifted the bandana from his eyes. Dr. Baird blinked rapidly and squeezed his eyes slits to keep the light out.
Everything was quiet for several seconds. It stretched to minutes. Ezra stayed behind the doctor. Stan stood on the far side of the table. Betty locked the door and leaned back on the wall to the side of it. Stan looked down at Dr. Baird.
“This is outrageous, who do you think you are?” Dr. Baird finally said in an upset choked-up voice, starting to stand up. “Where am I? What do you think you’re doing? I’ll have you all arrested, mark my words!”
Ezra stepped up behind the doctor and pushed him by the top of his head back down into his chair.
“Shut up and stay that way until we ask you something,” said Stan. “Turn his pockets out, Ezra, let’s see what we’re going to see before we get started.”
“I know your name now. You hoodlums will pay for this.”
“My name is Stan Riddman,” Stan said. “It’s spelled with two d’s. The only one who’s going to pay up is you. Keep your trap shut.”
When Ezra pivoted and rousted Dr. Baird halfway to his feet, spreading the lapels of the man’s jacket to search the inside pockets, and the men were face to face, the doctor recoiled.
“My God, what happened to you?”
Ezra’s eyes were black and blue, he was wearing a splint over his broken nose, and his busted lower lip was swollen bad. He spoke gingerly, careful to not hurt himself. He glared at the doctor.
“Yeah, your goons did this, and cracked one of my ribs, too. I’m in no mood to finesse you, so be a good boy,” said Ezra, his voice slow thin terse.
“My goons? I don’t have any goons. What are you talking about?”
“I already told you to shut up twice,” said Stan, as Ezra tossed the doctor’s wallet on the table and shoved him back into the chair. “The third time is going to be the charm.”
Stan sat down opposite Dr. Baird.
“I’m going to ask you some questions, doc,’” he said. “Some of the answers I already know. Some of them I don’t know. It will be easier all around if you don’t lie to me, especially if you don’t say you don’t know what this is all about.”
“But I don’t know.”
“We’re getting off on the wrong foot already,” said Stan, getting up quickly, leaning over the table, and grabbing the doctor by the knot of his tie. He jerked him towards him. Dr. Baird’s chin hit the tabletop and was dragged forward.
“I told you once, I won’t tell you again. I won’t have it. If you lie to me it will only make it a longer night, and we don’t want that.”
He let go and Dr. Baird fell back into his chair, lurching sputtering. He was starting to sweat. His shirt was damp. He wasn’t a weak man, not altogether, but he wasn’t a brave man, either. He was a smart man, and realized he was in a locked room, in a basement, with a man bigger than he was in front of him, a short-tempered man, and a man behind him whose mind was seemingly bent for revenge. He belatedly knew without having to know that both had guns on them.
The leader had spelled his name out to him. He didn’t like what that might mean. He knew this had everything to do with Tony de Marco. He knew they weren’t suddenly unexpectedly going to let him go free. He turned to Bettina.
“You can’t let them do this. You’ve got to help me.”
Betty gave Dr. Baird a breezy look. “You’re dirty, my fine man. You lied to us about Jackson Pollack, and then you had Ezra beaten up. We’re going to find out what you know, one way or the other.”
“I didn’t have him beaten up,” Dr. Baird protested.
“You know what, doc, I believe you,” said Stan. “You didn’t get your hands dirty. But you know all about Jackson Pollack, you lied about that. Let’s start there, what do you say?”
Stan wasn’t asking a question.
“I treated Jackson Pollack for depression, but I can’t discuss anything about it with you. It would be unethical.”
Stan was taken aback. He didn’t know what to say for a second.Ezra’s face jabbed his brain when he started laughing. He stopped. Bettina squawked and said, “You’re going to need a better deadbolt than that,” and smiled sweetly.
Outside Bartek zipped up his jacket, lolling against the brick wall of the Warsaw Baking Company. The sun was low in the sky. The warm late summer air had cooled off.
“Hey, Mikey, Jake, Eryk, what’s shaking?”
“We’re going down to Elsa’s, have some brews, and play some skee ball.”
Elsa’s was the Black Rabbit Tavern and Elsa was Elsa Brouwerji, a friendly middle-aged widow whose husband had tied a cinder block around his neck and thrown himself off the Rockaway Boardwalk a year to the day after the 30-million-gallon oil spill six years earlier poured into the Newtown Creek. He had been working at the neighborhood’s Standard Oil refinery and was accused by his supervisors of negligence and been fired.
It didn’t help matters that after his suicide it was determined that Casper Brouwerji hadn’t made the mistake that resulted in the biggest oil spill in the country’s history. His widow got a settlement from Standard Oil and bought the Pour House Bar and Grill. She changed the name to the Black Rabbit and thumb tacked a photograph of her husband to the wall above the cash register.
She cursed loudly and spat on the sidewalk behind her whenever she walked past a Standard service station.
“Are you coming?”
“No, I’m on the clock, errands for Stan. He said it wouldn’t be too long. I’ll catch up with you.”
Stan lifted his eyes over Dr. Baird’s shoulder.
“This is taking too long,” he said.
Ezra reached into his back pocket and wrenching the doctor’s arms behind him, over the backside of the chair, snapped a pair of handcuffs tight hurtful on his wrists. Stan threw two hinged metal frames with an attached head strap on the table.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“No,” said Dr. Baird.
“This is a Whitehead gag,” said Stan. “It wraps around the front of your head and the parts that are bent fit between your front teeth. When we spread them apart, the frames separate your jaw, holding your mouth open. We can get it wide open and keep it that way with that ratchet mechanism on each side of the frame.”
Dr. Baird didn’t say a word. He felt himself getting warm warmer.
Stan tossed a pair of needle nose pliers on the table.
“Do you know what those are?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Baird.
“Do you know what I’m planning on doing?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Are you going to tell me what I want to know?”
“I was paid to brainwash Jackson Pollack into committing suicide,” the doctor said.
There was a slight stop of breath in the room, but Stan knew enough to keep the line going on the base paths.
“How much were you paid?” he asked.
“One hundred and seventy fifty thousand dollars.”
Bettina puckered up and whistled, surprised impressed.
“What did you do with the money?”
“It’s in a Swiss bank account.”
“Who paid you to do that?”
“They never told me who they were.”
“Why did they want Jackson Pollack dead?”
“They never said.”
“You didn’t ask?”
“You didn’t care?”
“I need water, a glass of water.”
“No, no water, no nothing,” said Stan. “Who’s the little man?”
“His name is Tony.”
“Is that his real name?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What’s his last name?”
Dr. Baird hesitated.
“It’s a secret,” he said, murmuring.
“There are no secrets among friends, doc. “
“I didn’t keep any record of him at the office, not like Pollack, who was my patient before any of that happened later with Tony. I was told my life would be in grave danger if I ever revealed anything about him to anybody.”
Stan laughed again
“Your life is in danger right here and now,” he said. “You have one foot on a banana peel and the other one in the grave, is what I mean. I mean to have his name, or there will be hell to pay.”
“His name is Tony de Marco,” the psychiatrist finally said.
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“I don’t know.”
“What were you making him do? Was it the same as Pollack?”
“Yes, but different. When he hears the first bars of a certain song, he’s supposed to wait thirty seconds and then pull the ripcord on his dynamite vest.”
“A dynamite vest?”
“A vest packed with TNT.”
“I know what they are,” said Stan.
Some of the Hitler Youth, in the waning days of the war, when all hope was gone, had adopted Japanese tactics, throwing themselves under tanks wearing a vest crammed with grenades.
“He’s supposed to blow himself up when he hears a song?”
“What song is it?”
“I don’t know the name of it.”
“What does it sound like?”
Dr. Baird hummed a kind of a march with a drumbeat.
“That sounds familiar,” Betty said.
“Is that it? Are there any words?”
“No, no words, and that’s all I ever played for him, a kind of four-time ruffle, over and over.”
“Where and when is this supposed to happen?”
“Where he works.”
“Where does he work?
“I don’t know where.”
“Soon, in a few days, I think, since I wasn’t supposed to see him again. That’s all I know.”
“How much were you being paid for this gag?”
“The same as before.”
“Jesus!” Ezra hissed, hating the rich man who had almost gotten him killed. “And the goys call us money hungry,” he thought.
“What were you planning on doing after it was all over?”
“I was planning on disappearing.”
“I’ll bet you were,” said Stan.
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra went out into the hallway.
“All right, we know what happened to Jackson Pollack, and how, and who did it, more or less. We can wrap it up with Barney Newman, collect our fee, and call it a day,” said Stan. “We can honestly tell him it wasn’t an accident.”
“Or we can keep snooping and find out who it really was who did our painter,” said Betty.
“Oh, jeez” Stan exclaimed. “What about the Series?”
“I’m with you,” said Ezra. “But I’ll be damned if I’ve got anything better to do before the first game.”
“All right, all right, let’s get Bart down here.”
When Bartek, Karol, Bettina, Stan, and Ezra were all in the hallway, Stan asked Bart and Karol if they were willing and able to sit tight on Dr. Baird and Bumpy Williams in the basement.
“I want them kept here and I want them kept quiet until I say so. I don’t want anyone to know they’re here. I don’t want them wandering off. I don’t want a peep out of them. Can you make that happen?”
Bartek and Karol had survived Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht, Josef Stalin’s Red Army, and Dwight Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force. They had survived refugee camps, black marketers, and the deck of a tramp steamer to the United States. They were still surviving being DP’s in Brooklyn.
“What’s in it for us?” asked Bartek.
“A c-note apiece,” said Stan.
“For how long?”
The World Series started on Wednesday.
“Done, two chunks for the price of one,” said Karol, the older of the two by several weeks.
“All right,” said Stan. “Check with Betty every morning, and whenever you need anything, check with her again. Look in on the doc now, stay there for a few minutes, we’re going to see what we’ve got going with Cotton.”
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra walked into the boiler room. The Negro looked up from where he was handcuffed to a pipe in the back of the room. His lips curled, trying to smile. Stan stood between Ezra and Bumpy.
“I know you,” said Ezra, looking past Stan and down at Bumpy Williams.
“Uh, oh,” Bumpy muttered.
After bacon and eggs and toast and coffee, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower walked out of the big two-story house on the long quiet street and shook hands with Joel Carlson and his wife. “Thanks for having us,” said Dwight Eisenhower. The couple had spent the night in the guest bedroom. At the end of the driveway a man waited with three ballerina dolls in his arms.
Ike lit a cigarette. He looked at the man. He looked at the man standing next to him.
“John Krajicek, from Ames,” said the Secret Service agent in a dark suit.
The man holding the three dolls gave them to Mamie Eisenhower.
“Thank you so much,” she said, squeezing his arm.
John Krajiceks’s face lit up.
“It is my pleasure,” he said.
The President and Mrs. Eisenhower were in Boone, Iowa, on a Friday. It was the last day of summer. The next day was the first day of fall. It was a clear crisp Midwestern morning.
Once in their car they were driven to Carroll Street, to the house Mamie was born in sixty years earlier. Mrs. Beatrice Smiley, Mrs. Myrtle Douglas, and Mrs. Awilda Stranberg, all dressed up, all in a huddle anxious, all waiting their breathing bated, greeted them on the front porch. They presented Mamie with a photograph of the stone and memorial plaque that had recently been placed on the lawn of her birthplace.
Mamie was slightly unnerved by the God’s green acre look of it, like a memorial garden.
Looking down at the plaque, after reading the inscription, Ike noticed a shiny penny in the freshly mowed grass. “See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,” he thought. He picked it up.
Adlai Stevenson was coming to nearby Newton tomorrow to give a speech about farm problems. “We’ve got the Truth Squad ready,” Joel Carlson said over breakfast. Ike rolled the penny between his fingers in his pocket. The truth was he didn’t care about the Truth Squad. He had Adlai Stevenson in his pocket.
It was a few minutes before eleven when the Eisenhower’s arrived at the National Field Days and Plowing Matches near Colfax. In the past two days he had traveled hundreds of miles through central Iowa, made speeches, had impromptu informal talks, shook hands, shook more hands, waved and flashed his smile to more than 300,00 people, half of them on Walnut Street in Des Moines, eight and nine deep, on both sides of the street.
Gangs of schoolchildren ran alongside his limousine and kids on bicycles rode behind the police motorcycle escorts.
“There’s never been anything like this here before,” said Governor Leo Hoegh, whistling through his gap teeth in awe and admiration.
Eight years earlier, when Harry Truman campaigned in Iowa, he got sick and tired of hearing “We Like Ike!” from hecklers. “Why don’t you shut up and you might learn something,” he retorted at one stop, veering from his prepared speech. When he did, he became the target of eggs and tomatoes. But Ike didn’t run in 1948 and Harry Truman got the last laugh the morning after Thomas E. Dewey beat him.
As they drove up the dirt road off Highway 6 to the entrance of the Field Days, Dwight Eisenhower glanced at the cardboard signs at the side of the road. He wasn’t the challenger anymore. He was the incumbent. He was the man in the Oval Office with a record to defend.
“10-cent corn. The same as 1932.”
1932 was the year 24 years ago when Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in that year’s presidential race, more than three years into the Great Depression.
“Ike Promised 100 Per Cent Parity 1952. Didn’t Happen. What Promise in 1956?”
“Ike’s Peace Like Neville Chamberlain’s Peace.”
At the entrance a short round man held up a loosely lettered sign stuck on the end of a broomstick. “Adlai and Estes, The Bestest.”
“Mr. President,” said Herb Plambeck. “I’d like to introduce our twenty-seven Champion Plowmen and our one and only Champion Plow Woman, Mrs. Pauline Blankenship.”
Ike shook hands with them, taking Pauline Blankenship’s lightly, even though her hand was bigger and stronger than his. He shook hands with Frank Mendell, chairman of the National Contour Plowing Match, and Dale Hall, chairman of the National Level Land Plowing Match. In the lunch tent he met Kay Butler, Queen of the Furrow, and ate sitting between Mamie and Governor Hoegh.
Mrs. Jet Adams supervised the dozen ladies serving lunch. Mamie waved her over. “You’re doing a wonderful job,” she said.
After lunch Senator B. B. Hickenlooper introduced President Eisenhower to the crowd after introducing himself.
“Most of you know me, and I’m sure have voted for me often,” he said.
There was a wave of good-natured laughter.
“For those of you who don’t know me, and aren’t sure how to pronounce my name, my friends just call me Hick.”
There was another wave of laughter, longer larger louder.
“When I was child, my mother sent me to the drug store to get a nickel’s worth of asafetida for her asthma. The druggist just gave it me without writing it out, because he didn’t want to have to write out my full name, Bourke Blakemore Hickenlooper. “
“Just take this home to your mother, Hick,” said the druggist.
Bourke Hickenlooper had been a senator since 1944. He wore black frame glasses beneath a pinkish bald pate and was one of the most conservative and isolationist members in the United States Senate. He hadn’t lost an election since as lieutenant governor of Iowa almost twenty years ago he made headlines by saving a Cedar Rapids woman from drowning in the Cedar River.
She later told her friends she hadn’t needed saving, but that her savior had insisted. Hick knew a hick state like Iowa when he saw one.
President Eisenhower’s speech was broadcast live on local TV and radio. He stayed local, steering away from anything controversial, the bland leading the bland. After the address he presented trophies and scrolls to the champion plowmen and champion plow woman.
Henry Steenhock, the owner of the land where the Field Days was held, didn’t think much of the speech.
“I like Ike, but I don’t think I’ll vote for him, even though I’ve been a Republican all my life,” he said. “Flexible price supports have got to go. We’re not looking for a handout, but we deserve price protection. Other businesses are subsidized. Ezra Benson? He’s got to go. Vice-President Nixon? I don’t like his attitude, period. Estes Kefauver, he’s like I am, straight-forward.”
Henry Steenbock always called corn a cash crop and a spade a spade. He was a small wound-up man urgent upright in his beliefs. He went to church on Sundays and went to work every day except Sundays.
Dwight Eisenhower and his wife were at the Des Moines Municipal Airport by mid-afternoon for their flight back to Washington D. C. He greeted and answered questions from more than a hundred weekly state newspaper editors, met with two-dozen state Republican Party officials, and was escorted to the Columbine by sixteen Eagle Scouts formed as an Honor Guard.
Once inside the plane an aide sat down across from him.
“Mr. President we have a report that Anastasio Somoza, the president of Nicaragua, has been shot today.”
“Is it serious?”
“The report isn’t entirely clear, but it said, yes, serious, shot in the chest, point-blank, and it might be life-threatening.”
“Where have they taken him?”
“He’s been taken to the Panama Canal Zone hospital.”
“Good, best place for him. He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but Tacho’s our son-of-a-bitch, so tell them to do everything they can to save him.”
“Who shot him?”
“Well, goddamn it. A poet, you say?”
“A poet, yes, sir, a local writer and musician, played violin in a band. He was shot dead, riddled, on the spot.”
“A poet with a popgun, mightier than the pen.”
The plane touched down at 9:35, taxied to the MATS Terminal, and the Eisenhower’s were in bed by 10:45. The next day Ike stayed in the Mansion all day while it rained, only seeing the Secretary of State for a few minutes. Ike and Mamie attended the Sunday morning service at the National Presbyterian Church, and like the day before spent the rest of the day in the Mansion. Sunday night some of Ike’s Gang came to dinner at the White House, and over drinks planned their next stag trip to the Eisenhower Cabin at the Augusta National Golf Club.
When he was there, which was as often as possible, Ike worked mornings in the three-story seven-bedroom cabin, played golf with his friends in the afternoon, and bridge after dinner. His friends weren’t his friends at the card table, however, except his partner, and then not always even him. Ike had cut his teeth playing poker while at West Point. While a cadet he learned to purposely lose sometimes, so as to not arouse envy and suspicion.
“How was the Iowa trip?” one of them asked.
“The same as all the others, except it didn’t rain, and the food was better,” he said. “I got an eyeful of field corn, shook a lot of hands, and gave speeches to the faithful. I got out the vote out.”
“We heard you’re going to New York for the Series.”
He was looking forward to going out to the old ballgame.
Vicki, Bettina, and Dottie plunked down their fifteen cents apiece at a NYCTA booth and walked down the stairs. Dottie stopped to look at a yellow sign trimmed in red on the wall at the entrance to the tunnel.
“Please cooperate. When in doubt, ask any employee. Help keep the subways clean. Use receptacles for paper. Do not rush. Let ‘em off first. Move away from doors. Keep to the right on stairways. Try to shop between 10 and 4. Always be courteous.”
“Run!” she suddenly shouted, running up the platform. “It’s one of those air-conditioned cars!”
Two months earlier the transit system had rolled out the first experimental air-conditioned cars on the East Side IRT line. They were fitted with deodorizers and filters and piped-in soft music. The temperature was maintained in the mid-70s. Signs on every third window said, “Air-Conditioned Car. Please Keep Windows Closed.”
They were taking the IND line across the river to Brooklyn, across Gravesend, to the end of the line. When they got off the train they walked, crossed Mermaid Avenue, and hoofed it to Coney Island Beach and the Boardwalk.
Dottie felt light as lemonade.
They stopped at the Sodamat on West 15th Street as they strolled on the Boardwalk. “Good Drinks Served Right. Skee Ball 5 cents.” There were prize games, hammer games, rifle ranges, freak shows, and fortune-tellers up and down Coney Island.
“Look, they have waffles,” said Dottie, pointing to a sign on the front of a counter behind which a man in a white jacket and soda jerk cap was making waffles.
“I thought you wanted a Nathan’s,” said Vicki.
“I do, but later,” said Dottie.
“Did you know hot dogs were invented right here on Coney Island, almost one hundred years ago?” asked Bettina.
“Not so fast, how could Nathan have done that?” asked Dottie.
“It wasn’t Nathan, it was Charley Feltman, who used to boil sausages on a small charcoal stove inside his wagon and then slip them into a roll. He called them red hots at first, but later changed it to hot dogs.”
“How about some ball hop before we eat?” asked Vicki, pointing into the arcade behind the food counter.
“My game is stickball,” said Dottie. “Skee ball is for jellyfish. They don’t even play stickball here. They play coop-ball. That’s for jellyfish, too.”
“Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki.
“Oh, no, we play ringolevio and skelly, too, although some kids call it scummy top. Skelly is fun, but all you’ve got are your chalk and the squares and your caps. Ringolevio is way more fun, we run all over, and there’s a jail, and jailbreaks, and everything. Chain, chain, double chain, no break away!”
“Let’s break the chain and go eat,” said Betty. They ordered waffles.
“That was the best waffle I ever had,” Dottie said afterwards
“You had two of them,” said Vicki.
“She’s a growing girl,” said Betty.
“Those were the best two waffles I ever had,” said Dottie.
“Where to now?” asked Betty.
“I want to jump off the Eiffel Tower!” exclaimed Dottie.
The Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and later moved to Coney Island. It stood 250 feet high, was open-frame, and everyone called it the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. Twelve cantilevered steel arms sprouted from the top of the tower, eleven of them supporting two-person canvas seats and parachutes. The riders were belted down, hoisted to the top, then released into freefall, caught by the parachute, and floated to the ground. Shock absorbers were built into the seats, just in case.
“I’m not going up on that thing,” said Betty.
“Do you remember the parachute wedding?” Vicki asked her.
“No, I never heard of it.”
“A couple got married up there. The minister was in the seat next to them and the whole wedding party was on the rest of the seats. When the ceremony was over the married couple parachuted down first, and everyone else followed them, except for the minister. The cables on his seat got tangled and he was up there for more than five hours before firemen could get him down. The tower is right on the ocean, and it was windy, and he got sick as a dog, puking on the wedding party.”
“That cinches it,” said Betty.
“You and me both, sister,” said Vicki. “Time to plow back through the crowd.”
“Why do they call it Coney Island?” asked Dottie, taking a last longing look up at the parachute ride she wasn’t going to ride.
“It’s because of the Dutch,” said Bettina. “When they were here, maybe three hundred years ago, there were lots of rabbits in the dunes, so they called it Konijnen Eiland, which means Rabbit Island, which became Coney Island after the English took over.”
“How did they take over?”
“Somebody always takes over,” said Betty.
“Why does somebody always take over?”
“It’s the way of the world, child,” said Betty.
“I want to go on the Wonder Wheel,” said Dottie.
“I think we’re up for that,” said Vicki.
The Wonder Wheel at Luna Park was a Ferris wheel and a Chute-the Chutes and a slow-moving roller coaster all in one. It was once called Dip-the-Dip. Some of the cars were stationary, but more than less of them moved back and forth along tracks between a big outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel as all of it rotated.
They walked past an eight-foot-high neon sign spelling out “Wonder Wheel.” Through the middle of the sign was an arrow blinking and pointing to the ride. “Thrills!” it said.
Dottie sat between Vicki and Betty in one of the sliding cars.
“You can see Manhattan,” said Vicki when it was their turn at the top of the 150-foot-tall big wheel and it stopped for a few seconds.
“Look, you can see the Rockaway,” said Betty.
“It takes you low and it takes you high,” said Vicki.
“When you reach the top it’s like you can touch the sky,” said Dottie. “You can see the whole world.”
“One minute you’re on top, the next minute down you go,” said Betty. “I say, stay in your seat, it’s going to get bumpy, enjoy the ride.”
“Top of the world, ma, top of the world,” said Vicki like a crazy person, bulging her eyeballs and throwing her arms up.
“One day he’s a mama’s boy mad dog killer and the next day, older and wiser, he’s Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Dottie wondered, what are they talking about?
The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.
“Can we go fast now?” Dottie asked when they were on the ground.
The Cyclone was in Astroland at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 10th Street, almost 2700 feet long, with six fan turns and twelve drops. The lift hill was 85 feet high. Six years earlier a man who hadn’t spoken in fourteen years, riding a roller coaster for the first time, screamed while going down the first drop.
“I feel sick,” he muttered when the train returned to the station. He dropped to the ground in a dead faint after realizing he had spoken.
Dottie peeked over the front edge of the front car down at the track of the Cyclone as the train creaked to the top of the lift hill, where it was going to curve over the rails and hurtle down. Vicki and Betty were in the car behind her, after she had pleaded with them to go on the coaster, and she was with her new friend, Ronald, a boy her age whose parents had stayed behind on the platform.
“I have a friend who counts the seconds until the ride is over,” said Ronnie.
“Why does he do that?”
“He can’t stand it.”
“What’s the point of riding it in the first place?”
“I dunno,” said Ronnie. “Every time I ask if he wants to go with me, he says, sure, as soon as I’ve lost my mind, but he always goes anyway.”
“The Cyclone is for when you want to be scared and thrilled all at the same time. Maybe he should stick to the merry-go-round.”
“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “You don’t want to ride the roller coaster when you’ve got diarrhea.”
“No way,” said Dottie, making sure their buzz bar was locked in place.
“Did you hear about that girl who got hit in the face by a pigeon and broke her nose going down this hill?” asked Ronnie.
“No!” said Dottie.
“It was alright,” he said. “She had some Kleenex and stuffed it up her nose nostrils to keep the blood out of her eyes.”
“Yikes!” said Dottie, as the Cyclone shimmied shook roared down the other side of the lift hill. “If that happens, I don’t have any Kleenex.”
They laughed up and down the trick hill, leaned into the banked turns that twisted and tipped the train, ducked beneath the head-choppers, and inside of two minutes pulled back into the station where everybody clambered off.
“My legs feel like fried bacon,” said Ronnie.
“Yeah, that was the mostest fun,” said Dottie.
“Bye to you, too.”
“That was sketchy,” said Vicki.
“Shoot low, they’re sending Shetlands,” said Betty. “Did you feel that tower sway when we got to the top?”
“You bet I did.”
“I’m hungry,” said Dottie.
“You’re always hungry,” said Bettina. “Doesn’t Stan feed you? Do you have a hollow leg, or what?”
“So am I, hungry, I mean,” said Vicki.
“How about a red hot at Nathan’s?” Betty suggested.
“Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.
Egidijus and Rokas watched the ensigns, young men strutting between lieutenant and chief warrant officer, step into Connor’s Public House. The navy stood framed in the doorway, the long evening going dark over their shoulders. They both wore white pants, a white shirt over a white t-shirt, a white belt, and a white cap with a black bill. They wore black shoes. There was a single gold bar on their shoulder boards.
“Hey, shut that door, you live in a barn,” somebody yelled out.
In the next minute, their eyes locking on primetime, they took stools on both sides of a curvy redhead at the bar. They each gave her a smile. She looked them over sparingly scornfully.
“Drift,” she said to the one on her left.
“We just want to buy you a drink,” the one on the other side of her said.
“You, too,” she said.
“Butterbars,” said Egidijus. “Nieku nezino.”
“Yeah, they probably do the dishes in the guardhouse,” said Rokas.
“As close to water as they’re going to get,” Giles said.
Egidijus became Giles the minute he landed on Ellis Island.
Sam Ellis never meant his island to be a welcome place, unless it was the last welcome. Before the first immigrant ever landed there, it was where criminals and pirates were hung out to dry. New Yorkers called it Gibbet island, for the wooden hanging post where the dead were left on display for weeks as a warning to others.
“She’s got a classy chassis, though,” said Rocky, eyeing the redhead. “Our man is not going to like us snatching him, ruining his night in more ways than one.”
Rokas had been in line behind Egidijus and became Rocky right on the spot.
A longshoreman walked in, glanced at the sailors, and parked himself midway down the bar. The bartender poured a draft without asking. The longshoreman took a swig.
“Did you say something to that guy I just saw outside?” he asked the bartender.
“The guy with the feather in his hat?”
“Yeah, that one, who said this joint stinks.”
“That one comes in, wants a glass of water, and asks me what the quickest way is to Mount Kisco,” said the bartender. “I ask him if he’s walking, or does he have a car? He says, of course I have a car. So, I tell him, that would be the quickest way.”
“He was chunky about it, that’s sure. Hey, isn’t that Ratso’s girl?”
“Didn’t she tell them the gate is closed?”
“Yeah, but they didn’t give it any mind.”
“Oh boy, they don’t know from nothing.”
“Keep your head chicky,” said the bartender, tapping his temple with two fingers.
“You said it, brother.”
The Public House was on the corner of Pearl Street and Plymouth Street. The Manhattan Bridge over the East River was a stone’s throw away. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a cannon shot away. The new Con Edison Hudson Avenue substation, north of John Street facing the river between Jay Street and the Navy Yard, was a light switch away.
“Did you see the game on TV Friday?” asked Giles.
“The TV’s were working, and I saw the problem in black and white,” said Rocky. “No matter that Mickey is going to win the Triple Crown, no matter how many runs they score, if they keep giving up a dozen, they are not going anywhere in October, no matter who they play.”
The Yankees had been in Boston for the weekend, for their last season series at Fenway Park. On Friday night Mickey Mantle hit a home run that tape measured more than five hundred feet. The Bronx Bombers, though, set a dubious club record by stranding twenty runners on base.
The Mick had three hits. Bill Skowron had five hits. The only time the Moose failed to reach base was when Ted Williams made an all-out running diving catch of a screaming line drive in left field.
“He was running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” said Red Barber, after the outfielder got up, checking all his body parts.
Yogi Berra threw a man out at the plate. Mickey Mantle threw a man out at the plate. The Yankees crossed the plate plenty enough themselves. But the Red Sox still beat the Yankees, sending almost twice as many runners safely across the plate, 13-7 at the final count.
Mel Allen and Red Barber called the night game on WPIX, the station’s transmitter on top of the Empire State Building spreading the play-by-play out to the five boroughs. The next morning it would be Officer Joe’s turn. The year before weather forecaster Joe Bolton had put on a policeman’s uniform and started hosting shows based around the Little Rascals and Three Stooges. The kids loved Officer Joe’s taste in comedy.
“That ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne!” Mel Allen blared when Mickey Mantle hit his soaring blast. “It’s got to be one of the longest homers I’ve ever seen! How about that!”
Rocky watched the game at the Public House, on Friday night two nights earlier, at the far end of the bar, where one of the bar’s two RCA Victor portable TV’s squinted down on him from high up on the wall.
“Did you say something?” one of the sailors said, turning to Giles and Rocky in the booth opposite them.
“Hello there everybody,” Mel Allen said to start the televised live baseball game broadcast.
“This is Red Barber speaking,” said Red Barber. “Let me say hello to you all. Mel and I are here in the catbird seats.”
“Hey, did you hear me? I’m talking to you.” The sailor set his Tab Hunter face in stone.
“Three and two. What’ll he do?” Mel asked as the game neared its end and the last Yankee hitter squared up in the batter’s box.
“He took a good cut!” he exclaimed when the pinstriped slugger struck out to finish the game. “Tonight’s game was yet another reminder that baseball is dull only to dull minds,” said Red. “Signing off for WPIX, this is Red Barber and Mel Allen.”
“Hey, you, did you say something about washing dishes?” the sailor piped up again,
standing up, his friend standing up, too, and Ratso Moretti in the meantime walking down the length of the bar from the men’s room towards them, having spotted the fleet buzzing his queen bee.
The redhead swung her stool around to the bar, crossed her legs, and played with the swivel stick lolling in her gin martini glass.
“Who the fuck are you two rags?” Ratso barked at the sailors, glaring up at them from under the brim of his black felt pork pie hat, baring his sharp front teeth. “Why are you sitting with my lady?”
Giles and Rocky leaned back on their seat cushions, their backs against the wall. Rocky stretched his legs out. Giles popped a toothpick into his mouth.
“What do you plan on doing about it, little man?” asked the bigger of the two sailors. Ratso wasn’t short, but he wasn’t tall, either. The sailors were both tall.
Ratso took one step back, reached down for his fly, unzipped it, and flashed the handle of a Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special revolver. It was the kind of gun carried by plainclothes and off-duty policemen. He kept his hand on the gun while looking straight at the two sailors.
“Hit the road, Clyde,” he said. “You, too, whatever your name is.”
The sailors backed away and backed out of the bar. Nobody paid any attention, but everybody was focused on the retreat out of the corner of their eyes. When the white uniforms were gone, and he had zipped back up, Ratso sat down next to his squeeze and wrapped his arm around her waist.
“Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” said Rocky.
“At least now we know where he hides it,” said Giles.
Bartek and Karol were at the far end of the bar. They didn’t want anything to happen just right now. They wanted Ratso to stay snug with his girl, drinking on an empty stomach, stretching the night out. There were four of them and only one of him, but he was a psycho crazy man. Karol knew it for sure, and told the others, and it was the number one thing, he said, they had to remember. There was no sense in letting their out back in the dark appointment go down the drain.
“Did you find a plumber this morning?” Rocky asked Giles.
“No, because not only does God rest on Sundays, so do all the plumbers in Brooklyn.”
“What did you do?
“I fixed it myself.”
One of the toilets in the women’s bathroom in the parish hall next door to St. George’s Church on York Street sprang a leak after mass. The Lithuanian Roman Catholic congregation was around the corner from the Irish Roman Catholic St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Front and Gold Streets. Lithuanians made up more than half of everybody who lived in Vinegar Hill, but they had never been embraced by the Irish and their church, who were there first, so they built their own.
St. George’s had three arched doorways, three arched second-story window assemblages, and a stepped façade with a cross on top. It looked first-class when the sun was shining on it. It looked first-class at midnight in a thunderstorm. It looked first-class at midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
“What was the problem?”
The parish priest dragooned Giles on his way out of the parish hall.
“Prasome, gali padet?” asked the priest.
“The wax ring, that’s all it was.”
“Where did you find a wax ring on a Sunday?”
“My old man. He’s always loaded for bear.”
“Did you miss breakfast?”
“No, mom warmed it back up for me, fried some more eggs, fresh coffee, and a torte.”
When Ratso hopped off his bar stool, and his girl slid off hers, and they walked out the front door, Karol and Bartek went out the back door. Giles and Rocky followed Ratso out the front door.
“Goddamn it!” Ratso cursed turning the corner into the quiet side street next to the Public House where he had parked his new car. He looked down at the driver’s side front tire Karol had flattened with his switchblade before going inside.
“What’s the matter mister?” asked Giles.
“Flat tire,” said Ratso.
He recognized the young man and the other one from the bar.
“Need a hand?”
“I’ve got all the hands I need,” said Ratso.
Giles fired up a cigarette, watching and waiting. Rocky leaned against a lamp pole. Ratso opened the trunk of the car, looking over his shoulder at them, and hunched low at the tire to loosen the lug nuts.
“This ain’t a show,” he said.
“It is to us.”
When Ratso struggled with the last stubborn lug nut, Giles flicked his still lit cigarette butt at the redhead, who was standing in space, bouncing it off her midriff. She squealed in outrage, Ratso twisted toward her, and Giles, Rocky, Karol, and Bartek rushed him, two from the front and two from the back.
As Ratso started to stand up, Karol kicked him as hard as he could in the groin, the holstered gun Ratso trying to reach adding insult to injury. He doubled over, grabbed his stomach, fell over, and lay on the ground in a fetal position. His eyes ran salty pain and he threw up.
Bartek threw a muslin cloth bag over his head and tightened the drawstring. Karol tied his hands behind his back with clothesline. Bartek reached into Ratso’s pants and pulled out the holster with the small revolver. He went to the passenger side front door and tossed the holster and gun into the glove box of the Chevy.
While Giles and Rocky hauled him to Karol’s hunk of junk behind the Public House, Bartek turned to the redhead.
“Vamoose,” he said sharply. “And keep your mouth shut, or we’ll take you next.”
She backed away, smoothed her skirt, gave him a smile, cute cunning snaky light-footed on her feet, and walked back into the Public House.
“Durna mergaite,” Giles said.
“Yeah, but steamy,” Rocky said.
“Going to be a hell-wife.”
At the mouth of the intersection, they heard a bullhorn, “Get your hot knishes, I got to send my wife to the Catskills, get your knishes.”
The truck was light blue dented and dirty. It was three-wheeled, a cab pulling a cart, with a Saint Bernard-sized pretzel on top. A sign on the side said, “Hot knishes & pretzels, 10 cents, 3 for $.25.”
“Hey, what kind of knishes do you have?”
“I have kasha or potato.”
“I’ll take three potato.”
“Sorry, all I have is kasha.”
There was a tin saltshaker tied by a string to the cart. The pastry was hot with buckwheat groats inside. The brown bag the street vendor put them into instantly became saturated with enough oil to deep fry three more knishes. He poured in a handful of salt.
“You’re out of your neighborhood, working late,” Giles said.
“It’s my wife,” the Jew said.
Giles and Rocky both got bottles of cold Orange Crush.
“Thanks, boys, we’ll settle up tomorrow,” said Karol when Ratso was safe and sound in the trunk, his feet tied together and hogged to his bound wrists so that he lay like a sad sack of potatoes on his side, still groaning.
Giles touched his forefinger to his thumb and pointed the remaining three fingers of his right hand straight up.
Karol and Bartek drove to Sunset Park, turned onto 53rd Street at 3rd Avenue, and finally pulled into and parked behind a three-story abandoned brick building. On the side of the building a painted billboard advertising “R. Moses & Son, Men’s Clothes” was fading away. The storefront’s windows were boarded up and the other windows on every floor were dark.
They manhandled Ratso through a back door and into a small featureless room. A table lamp on the floor tried to make sense of the dark with a 40-watt bulb. Stan was standing in a corner in the gloom smoking a cigarette. They dropped Ratso on the floor. Bartek stood sentry at the door.
“Let him loose, except for his hands,” said Stan.
Karol untied Ratso’s feet, yanked the bag off his head, and moved back to stand next to Bartek. Stan stayed where he was, in the shadows. Ratso stayed where he was, too. He felt better, but he still felt horrible. He had a weird stomachache.
“Tell me about Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.
“I don’t know no Polacks,” said Ratso.
“You know us now,” Karol said under his breath.
“Not Polacks. I said Pollack, as in Jackson Pollack, the painter.”
“I don’t know no painters.”
“Why did you jump my associate the other night?”
“I don’t know no associates. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”
“I don’t know how your sack is feeling, but if it was me, I wouldn’t want it to happen again, especially not now, not so soon,” said Stan.
“What do you want?”
“What were you doing in the middle of the night outside the shrink’s office? Why did you jump my man? What does Jackson Pollack have to do with Big Paulie?”
“You’re a dead man when Luca finds out about this,” Ratso said, spitting terse vehement.
Stan stepped forward, bent down, and framed an inch with his fingers in Ratso’s red face.
“You’re this close to being a dead man,” he said.
He aimed a kick at Ratso’s nuts. The gunman rolled over in a flash. Stan kicked him in the side, aiming for his kidney. Ratso gasped in pain and rage. Stan stepped over him, bent down again, nose to nose with the convulsing thug.
“You’re going to tell me what I want to know,” he said.
It didn’t take long. After Ratso ratted out Big Paulie and Park Avenue and they had hog-tied him again, Stan stopped at a phone booth on his way home, the cab driver waiting at the curb, and called the desk sergeant at the 17th Precinct. He told him where to find Ratso, told him he wanted to confess to assaulting Ezra four nights earlier, and wanted to be held in custody for his own protection.
“Does he need medical attention?” asked the sergeant.
“No, he’ll be fine, just a few bumps and bruises.”
“What do I tell the captain? Is anybody going to be looking for Morelli, trying to spring him?”
“Nobody except his bad girl knows anything, but she was a good girl the last we saw her and promised to stay quiet. Ratso’s car is just outside the Public House in Vinegar Hill. His gun is in the glove box. It’s a Chiefs Special.”
“You don’t say.”
“You might want to have that gun run up. Ballistics might find it matches something.”
“OK, we’ll have a car there in five minutes-or-so.”
Ten minutes later three policemen and a plainclothes officer spilling out of two cars flash-lighted their way into the back of the building, hauled the left in the lurch Ratso Moretti out the door, untied him then handcuffed him, tossed him face first into the back of one of the radio cars, and drove him to the 17th Precinct, forcing him into a basement cell at the end of a hallway, and forgetting about him for the rest of the next week.
Thirty minutes later Stan was home in Hell’s Kitchen, in one of his two orange wingback armchairs, a bottle of Blatz on the coffee table, while Mr. Moto licked his chops on the sofa on the other side of the table. Stan took a pull on his bottle of beer and watched the cat. He thought about getting another one to keep him company, but Mr. Moto didn’t seem to mind his solitary life.
The cat slept and ate and slept some more. He went out on the prowl. Sometimes he sat on the fire escape, seeming to be thinking.
When it came to chow, Mr. Moto liked Puss ’N Boots best, fish followed by chicken followed by beef followed by any other meat. He wasn’t picky. He didn’t think it did any harm to ask Stan for what he wanted, since the story of cats was the story of freeloaders. Stan kept Mr. Moto happy carnivorous with his poker winnings.
“Puss ‘N Boots adds the Plus!”
He wasn’t a mixed-up cat. He lived day-to-day, every day a new day, taking what came his way. He liked fresh water and food in the morning, a long nap from late morning into the late afternoon, and a clean supply of Kitty Litter when he couldn’t get down to the flowerbeds.
“Ask Kitty. She Knows. It absorbs and deodorizes. Takes the place of sand.”
Stan had stopped at Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana, on his way home, a sandwich shop, restaurant, and grocery on 9th Avenue, for a slice of Hero-Boy. The entire six-foot hero, if you wanted it, was 22-pounds and cost $16.50. The wait staff was surly, but the sandwiches were worth the wait. He took a bite, chewed, and washed it down with his beer.
Ezra was out of the hospital. He would stop and see him tomorrow morning, tell him they had snatched Ratso, who had spilled his guts, but it still wasn’t clear what was going on. It looked like Dr. Baird had engineered Jackson Pollack’s death somehow, but why? Where was the pay-off in it? Vicki said that since Jackson Pollack died unexpectedly, died young, and had simply died, there weren’t going to be any more paintings by him. Since he was well known, by collectors and museums, prices for his art were going to go up.
“He was in demand, now he’s in big demand, especially the drip paintings,” she said. “But nobody kills a painter to make a profit on his art, not even here in New York. It’s a long-term investment, not like kidnapping somebody for the ransom.”
He would sort it out next week. Stan finished his sandwich, finished his bottle of beer, and went to bed. Mr. Moto followed him, curling up just inches from Stan’s face, and was asleep fast faster fastest. He had never been bothered by insomnia. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a dream, he pricked up his ears.
Mr. Moto could smell a rat when he had to. When he went to the bedroom window, though, it was just a ladybug on the sill. It was red with black spots. He stretched up on his hind legs and sniffed the bug, which opened its wings, flew in circles, and landed on his nose.
“Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children shall burn!”
Mr. Moto believed ladybugs were lucky. He believed when a ladybug landed on you your wishes would be granted. He also believed it was unlucky to harm them. He licked the bug off his nose and spat it out through the open window. He jumped on the ledge, crouched, and watched the bug fly out into the big city.
In his jail cell at the bottom of nowhere, Ratso Moretti tried to stare down the foot-long rat staring back at him. The rat wasn’t having any of it. Nobody was going to stare him down in the kingdom of vermin.
Four hours later, near the end of the night, near the onset of dawn, while a dead on his feet policeman watched, now that it was all over and the car had been searched and dusted for fingerprints, a tow truck hooked the new Chevrolet with a sad flat tire and dragged it off Vinegar Hill to the NYPD Tow Pound.
“You are kind of a big man,” Dottie said in the breezy spic and span Brooklyn air.
“I’m almost 300 pounds,” said Happy Felton. “I used to play football in college, although I always wanted to be a ballplayer, be behind the plate. But I was a perfect circle. How could I be a perfect catcher?”
“You would have been perfect to catch a perfect circle, the baseball,” Dottie said,
Marie had taken Dottie to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play the Philadelphia Phillies. The view was so good the fans in the bleachers could see the stitching on the uniforms.
The city’s air was usually so dirty you could touch the grime suspended in it. Coal power plants belched dark smoke. Burnt-up garbage rained ash on everybody except the Upper East Side. Three years earlier more than 200 people died in one week breathing the filthy smog air.
Dottie was in the right field bullpen, she and two boys, playing throw and catch and throw, warming up for Happy Felton’s Knothole Gang show on WOR-TV. The program aired 25 minutes before every home game. Happy knew how to put on a bang-up matinee. He had been in a medicine-man show, beat the drums in a circus, sang as one of the Four Ambassadors, headlined an orchestra for ten years, appeared on Broadway, and been a contract player for MGM.
After introducing the kids, Happy always introduced a Dodgers player, who judged the kids on speed, fielding ability, and baseball smarts. This afternoon it wasn’t a player. It was Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager of the team. He had led the Dodgers to National League pennants in 1952, 1953, and 1955. They won their first World Series in franchise history in 1955.
They were shooting for the stars the rest of the week.
“We don’t usually have girls out here,” Buzzie said to Dottie.
“I always called him Buzzie, not Emil, because he was always buzzing around,” said Emil’s sister Iola.
Buzzie called his sister Lolly.
“I can do anything a boy can do, and better,” said Dottie. “I’m the best stickball player in our neighborhood.”
“Let’s see what you’re made of,” said Emil the Buzz.
Tony the Phil walked by on the warning track, glancing over the fence at the kids swinging bats and running imaginary bases. He veered into center field and stopped where he knew the storm drain was. It was where he was planning on planting nitro, enough of it to kill a man, many a man. He looked down at the ground. He hoped it didn’t blow anybody else up besides who was going to be in the car, but he knew it was going to be a hell of a blast.
He didn’t want anything to happen to Happy or any of the kids who might be in the bullpen. It would be too bad. But he had to do what he had been told to do. He was going to follow orders. It was all there, all in his head. He had to go ahead.
After the boys and girls had gone through their paces, and Happy and Buzzie had put their heads together, they pinned that day’s blue ribbon on Dottie. The two boys got baseball equipment for their appearances, and Dottie was told she was eligible to come back the next game, the first of the last series of the regular season, for a solo chat with her favorite Dodger’s player.
“The Little Colonel!” she exclaimed when asked.
“Why is he your favorite player,” asked Happy.
“Because he’s the best shortstop ever. His glove is where base hits go to kick the bucket. He can swallow them down like a kingfish and he can double them up,” Dottie said.
Pee Wee Reese had been a champion marbles player as a kid in Kentucky. A peewee is a small marble. He was a small child. He could knuckle down, playing ringer, boss-out, and black snake, getting low to the ground. His size was a godsend in the sand. One year he was runner-up to the national champion in the Louisville Courier-Journal’s marble tournament.
He was an undersized teenager, too, not playing baseball until his senior year in high school. Since then, he’d beefed up gotten into stayed in professional baseball for 17 years, making the National League All-Star team ten years in a row.
“Can I come back Wednesday instead of this weekend?”
“I like your spirit, but we have to win today, and we have to win when the Pirates come into town, too, for there to even be a next Wednesday.”
“I just know you will. I’m counting on it. Can I come back Wednesday, please?”
Happy and Buzzie put their heads back together.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please join us before the game on Wednesday next week, what we hope will be the first home game of the series, when Dottie Riddman will spend a few minutes talking to Pee Wee Reese. Until then, this is Happy Felton signing off for WOR.”
It was going to come down to the weekend, it turned out.
The Phillies pummeled the Dodgers on the Wednesday with ten hits, taking the game 7 – 3. Del Ennis drove in two runs on three hits, which was three hits more than Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson all together managed to put together. Only Duke Snider matched Del Ennis, while the rest of the Dodgers eked out two separate harmless singles, one of them a blooper.
Dottie didn’t go home unhappy, though. She wasn’t somebody who needed her team to win to make the trip to the ballpark worth it. Winning was a part of it all, but everything else, the sunshine in the daytime, jumping to your feet in the stands, peanut shells and tobacco butts, all the fans, the fun of the game, the heroes and goats and memories, was more than anything the whole part of it.
“If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop ‘em,” said Yogi Berra on the other side of the river.
Nobody was going to stop her from going to the ballpark.
The weather stopped everybody from going to the ballpark on Friday. A drizzling rain started at 5 o’clock. The game was called by Umpire Jocko Conlan at 7:30 and rescheduled as a twin bill on Saturday.
The Milwaukee Braves lost to the St. Louis Cardinals that night, 5 – 4, cutting their lead in the National League to half a game over the second-place Dodgers.
In the first game against the Pirates on Saturday afternoon Sal No-Hit Maglie was jolted early, giving up two runs in the top of the first, but stiffened, and slammed the door shut. The Dodgers came back with three in the bottom of the frame and won going away, 6 -2. Clem Labine, a crack relief hurler pressed into starting, couldn’t solve Roberto Clemente, who went three for four, in the second game, but the Bucs wasted their other four hits, and were barely able to push across a single run in the eighth.
“Sometimes the only thing worse than a Pirates game is a Pirates doubleheader,” said a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Press, a writer who had endured four finishes dead last in the cellar in the past six years.
After the Dodgers took the front end and then the back end of their doubleheader against the Pirates, it left one game on Sunday for all the marbles. If the Dodgers won, nothing the Braves did would matter.
Dottie knew in her young bones the Bums would get it done.
“I know you,” said Ezra.
He was looking down at Bumpy Williams handcuffed to a pipe at the back of the boiler room in the basement of the Warsaw Baking Company in Little Poland. The black man’s lips curled up down between a half-smile and a snarl. Ezra sprang at him. Stan, standing between Ezra and Bumpy, held him back.
“Cut it out,” he said.
When the Warsaw Bakery opened at 9 o’clock in the morning they had been open for four hours. When the first two women turned on the lights at 5 AM, the first thing they did was clean the kitchen again and prepare dough. By 6 AM everyone was mixing and kneading. By 7 AM they were baking. Buns and bread went in their own bins, doughnuts and cookies were baked on their own trays, and the potato bread had its own oven.
Their potato bread had been awarded a blue ribbon for “excellence of freshness, flavor, quality, uniformity, cleanliness, and value” by the Independent Bakers Council of America in 1954. It tasted great made into Moravian Potato Sugar Bread. It tasted great with coffee.
When Karol, sitting on a stool in the boiler room, cut into his half-loaf of sugar bread, Bumpy Williams nodded at him.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Later,” said Karol.
“I’m thirsty, too.”
“Later,” said Karol, tipping a mug of coffee up to his mouth.
The door opened and Bartek slipped in.
“Good,” said Karol. “The shrink hasn’t said a word, but sooty is complaining about losing weight.”
“You gotta stay lean and clean,” said Bartek.
“Don’t rattle my chain. I got a name and it ain’t sooty, honky,” said Bumpy.
“You ain’t got no name today, black man, not until we say so, we’ll let you know what day that is, so keep it zipped,” said Karol.
“You’ve lost your marbles,” said Bumpy Williams.
“Hear me out,” said Stan. “What matters is getting it done.”
Karol and Bartek had dragged Dr. Baird away. Stan brought sandwiches and beer, lost the cuffs shackling Bumpy, and they were having lunch over an empty overturned Elmhurst Dairy milk crate. They took bites out of their sausage sandwiches and downed daytime pulls of beer.
“The Polacks are on the other side of that door, am I right?” asked Bumpy.
“They might be, but they don’t like being called Polacks,” said Stan. “My father was Polish, but I’m second-generation. Besides, I’m not sensitive. They’re from the old country. They take things the wrong way sometimes. They don’t like the slur, you know what I mean?”
“Believe me, man, I know what you mean,” said Bumpy.
“I’m not surprised you do,” said Stan.
“All right, but why should I go along with you? I’ve got it good, no reason to jump ship.”
“The ship isn’t sinking right now, no, but it’s full of rats. Maybe you think you can trust the colored man, but you can’t, not always. The Dago’s, no, you can’t trust them, and the police will always be dogging you. That’s their mission. Even the Dago’s get dragged down, even when they have Carmine DeSapio and Tammany Hall in their back pockets.”
Frank Costello, waking up that morning in prison, where for the past two years he had been waking up serving a five-year sentence, woke up still an American, after court attempts to denaturalize him finally failed the day before.
“By the law of averages, I was bound to win this one,” he whispered in his hoarse voice.
He had only been jailed once before, in 1915, for carrying a gun, and only convicted once before for contempt, in 1952, when he walked out on the Senate Crime Committee, pleading a sore throat. But the Federals got him for tax evasion in 1954.
It didn’t matter to the Prime Minister of the Underworld. He controlled the Lucky Luciano mob from his cell and was embroiled in a power struggle with Vito Genovese and his crime family.
“You got me over a barrel right now, no matter what I say or do,” said Bumpy.
“No, just for a few days,” said Stan. “You’re not a dead duck.”
“What do you mean?”
“The shrink, I’m going to have to do something about him, but you, I just need to keep you on ice for a few days. You’ll be able to go after that. I can’t keep feeding you.”
“Just go? Go where?”
“Back to where you came from. I’ve got nothing for or against you. You didn’t put your hands on my man. After we get square with whatever is going on, you’ll be free to go your own way.”
“That might put me over the same kind of barrel.”
“It might, but you won’t be my problem. You can lay low in Harlem.”
“You can’t never get low enough when they want you.”
“Think about what I said,” said Stan.
“I’ll think about it,” said Bumpy.
“Think what you could do with all that money,” said Dr. Robert Baird, looking up at Karol and Bartek in the other room.
He was handcuffed to the chair he was sitting in. Bartek stood with his back to the door. Karol was reading the Daily News, sitting opposite the psychiatrist.
“You could go and do whatever you want. You wouldn’t have to live in this rat’s nest of a neighborhood, in this rotten borough.”
Karol was reading about the Poznan protests basck in the homeland three months earlier that had been put down by 400 tanks and ten thousand soldiers. The ringleaders were being put on trial. There was a picture of a march at the head of which two young men carried a sign aloft.
Another photograph was of three young men accused of killing a policeman during the riots. “I felt great hatred for them,” explained Ludwig Wierzbicki, a fireman at a distillery, when asked why he shot at the secret police.
“The police treated me inhumanely,” said Stanislaw Kaufman, a year younger than the 21-year-old fireman.
“I was taken to the commandant of the police who put me through my second christening. I was beaten with rods on my face and knocked over with a blow from behind. An officer dragged me by the hair down to the second floor and beat and kicked me. I was stood up against the wall while he pummeled the back of my head, knocking my face into the wall.”
Karol looked across at the doctor.
“Shut your face. We like living here,” he said.
“I’ll give you fifty thousand dollars each, in cash, if you let me go,” said Dr. Baird.
“We’re the housekeepers, not the householders,” said Karol. “You’ve got to talk to Stan about that. He likes knowing what the score is.”
“He’s a snoopy guy that way.” said Bartek, flipping a cigarette between his lips. “You tell Stan you want to give him fifty, he’s going to wonder where the rest of it is, what you’re holding back from him.
Dr. Baird blanched, shrinking back into his chair.
“The good news is you’re not bust, at least not yet, my man,” said Karol. “The bad news is, you’re close.”
Dr. Robert Baird didn’t care about being uncared for or unloved. He didn’t care about being unwanted. What gnawed on him was losing everything he had, going hungry and homeless. Maybe poverty was the mother of crime, but he didn’t want to be more than the professional man committing a crime for the fortune it brought him. Poverty was inconvenient. It meant being stuck in one place the rest of your life. He couldn’t stand the thought of being poor. Being rich was glorious weightless. Being poor was miserable. It scared him to think he might have worked his way up from nothing to a life of nothing left.
Stan came into the room.
“All right, back in the boiler room with him.”
“OK, boss,” said Bartek.
“He tried to buy his way out,” said Karol.
“How much?” asked Stan.
“Fifty large each.”
“He’s throwing you a spitball. He’s buying and selling you short,” said Stan.
“Is that right?”
“Let’s go you shuckster,” Karol said, freeing Dr. Baird and pulling roughly him to his feet. “Time to go talk about some real bread.”
Stan stopped at Miller’s on his way to pick up Vicki. They had plans for drinks at the El Morocco and drinks and dinner later at P. J. Clarke’s down the street. Nat King Cole had named the bacon cheeseburger at Clarke’s the “Cadillac of burgers.” Stan bought two sour pickles out of a barrel for a nickel each and ate them standing outside the storefront.
They had drinks at the El Morocco, at the bar, at a slight remove from the blue zebra stripe motif. It was crowded. There was a party going on, spilling into the club after the premiere of Arthur Miller’s “A View from a Bridge” at the Coronet Theatre. Marilyn Monroe was there, having divorced Joe DiMaggio after nine months arguing with the umpire and married Arthur Miller three months earlier.
“Egghead Weds Hourglass” was how the papers bit into and ran with it.
“I’m a ballplayer, not an actor,” said Joltin’ Joe. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. Who the hell wants to be a writer, if that’s what the Miller was doing with his time.
Stan and Vicki had another drink at the club. They had more drinks and bacon cheeseburgers at P. J. Clarke’s.
“Do you think he’ll go for it?” asked Vicki.
“A day or two will tell,” said Stan.
Danny Lavezzo was in his usual spot between the front and back rooms, greeting customers, when they got there. The back room was a dining room of bare brick and checked tablecloths A group of regulars met every Friday for lunch at the large oval table. They called themselves the Science Club. Jessie, the saloon’s terrier who ran up and down Third Avenue picking up newspapers, was sleeping behind the bar.
Stan spotted two seats at the bar. He and Vicki snagged them. Danny never let unaccompanied women stand at the bar.
“It would just encourage prostitutes,” he explained.
Buzzie Bavasi walked in and walked to the end of the bar. Jessie jumped up, ran past the bartender, and out the door. He came back with a copy of the Herald Tribune. Buzzie tossed fifteen cents into Jessie’s tip jar.
Anastasio Somoza, who voted himself in as President of Nicaragua, was front page news. He died in the dank morning sometime on Saturday from gunshot wounds after a poet shot him four times pointblank a week earlier. Almost 25 years earlier Anastasio Somoza had assassinated Augusto Sandino and seized power with the help of the United States Marines.
“I was a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the banks,” said Marine General Smedly Butler. “In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.” He followed his orders, though, good soldier and racketeer.
Dwight Eisenhower had ordered a team of physicians to the Canal Zone to treat the big man, but the big man’s time was up. His son, Luis Somoza, was named Acting President in the afternoon, and looking calm in a white suit, thanked the United States for its “inestimable aid to save the life which guided our destiny.” Luis’s brother took control of the National Guard, making sure their political social economic opponents stayed out of the way.
“Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer,” Dwight Eisenhower cursed, at the meeting with his National Security Council the following week after they too soon broached Anastasio Somoza’s murder with a minute of desultory attention to it. Nobody cared overly much about a spic dictator.
Bumpy Williams slept like a log, an uncomfortable log. Robert Baird worried his way to daylight. Karol and Bartek drank beer and played cards with the doctor’s pretend money.
Stan and Vicki paid attention to each other all the evening at P. J. Clarke’s, all the way back to Hell’s Kitchen, and afterwards, too, when they paid even more attention to each other. They didn’t know anything about any shenanigans in any banana republic. It was the last thing on their shenanigan minds.
Mr. Moto spent the night on the fire escape. He was neutered for the safety of the ladies in the neighborhood. He wasn’t bitter, but still, he wasn’t the man he used to be.
“Hail to the chief,” said Bettina.
“Good morning is fine,” said Stan. “Besides, it’s Saturday.”
“No, what you were humming, that’s ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and you’re the chief, so hail to you,” id Betty.
“That’s what the canary serenaded us with in the basement,” said Stan.
Betty hummed the tune to herself.
“You’re right,” she said. “I didn’t work it out when he hummed it, but that’s what it is.”
“He said the action would all happen when the little man heard that song,” Stan said. “When he did, he was going to pull the ripcord on his dynamite vest.”
“It almost sounds like he plans on blowing up the president,” Betty speculated aloud.
“How do you make that?” asked Stan.
“Where have you been?”
“I’m right here,” said Stan, leaning back in his chair, pointing to the floor..
“All right, all right, don’t get your dander up,” said Betty. “It’s the anthem they play for the president. He walks into a room and the band plays that song. It’s been around almost as long as the Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I’ve never been invited to the White House and I’ve never heard the band, although I had a Dutch guy in my outfit who was always telling me “op donderon” until I blew up and asked him what the hell it meant. He said it meant don’t get mad.”
“You were in the army, right?”
“It’s the army band.”
“They didn’t play any songs in my man’s army.”
“I’ve heard it on the radio.”
“I don’t have a radio.”
“They play it on TV.”
“I don’t have a TV.”
“You are living in the Middle Ages. Anyway, they play it at the president’s funeral, too.”
“I don’t go to funerals, unless it’s business. Even then, nobody wants you to take photographs anymore, so unless I can get Snapshot to go with me, since he doesn’t care what anybody says, I don’t even do that much anymore.”
“Yogi Berra said you should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
“That doesn’t make sense. For another thing, Berra plays for the Yankees.”
“Oh, right, sorry. Doesn’t it make you sad, though, missing your own, since everyone says such nice things about you, even though it’s a few days late?” asked Betty.
“When I breathe out for the last time, I’ll be gone for good, and I won’t be missing anything where I’m going,” said Stan.
“Where are you going?”
“That’s a secret.”
“What about the little man’s bomb song? That fuse is burning, as far as I can see. Are we going to do anything about it?”
“I’ll be damned if I want to get involved with the Secret Service,” said Stan, looking peeved. “They’ll look me up and down as much as they’ll look up and down for him, bomb or no bomb.
I’ve got no doubt they are damned hard to deal with.”
“On top of that you’ve kidnapped the doctor and are holding him illegally,” Betty offered.
“What are they going to say about that? Christ, I had my part of the show done, and now this. If they find that Tony de Marco, fine, but if they don’t, they’ll come back and want to talk to me again and again. If they don’t roust him, and something does happen, I’ll be square one in the bull’s eye with them.”
“What if you don’t say anything and something happens?”
“Like Eisenhower being blown up?”
“Exactly, like Eisenhower being blown up.”
“He made it through the war.”
“He wasn’t on the front lines.”
“He was target number one, the way I used to hear it. The Germans wanted him dead in the worst way.”
“Aren’t you going to do anything?”
“Look, Betty, I know New York City, but I don’t know Washington, and what little I know, I don’t like.”
“It could happen anywhere,” said Betty. “It doesn’t have to happen in Washington. He travels all over the country, giving speeches, especially now that it’s election time. It could happen here.”
“How could it happen here? How could the little man get close enough, no matter how big his bomb is?”
“Somebody got close to Lincoln. FDR dodged it twenty years ago, even though it was close, but only because the fruitcake taking pot shots at him was short and had to stand on a barrel, and the barrel wobbled, so he ended up hitting everybody else around FDR, instead. I think he killed the mayor of Chicago, or the mayor of some place.”
“Why would Eisenhower come campaigning here? He might pick up some votes in Queens, but the other boroughs, no, those are all going to the Democrats, for sure. He’ll campaign upstate, not here.”
“What about the World Series?”
“What about it?”
“Who do you think throws out the first pitch at the first game of the series.”
“Some big shot.”
“No, not some big shot. It’s always the big shot.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Stan.
“OK, just give me a few minutes,” said Betty, picking up her phone.
“Who are you calling?” asked Stan.
“Pete,” she said.
“My friend Pete, ping-pong Pete.”
Betty put her index finger into the second finger hole, turned the rotary dial on the shiny black phone to the far right, put her finger into six more holes, turning each one to the right, and asked for Pete Murphy when she was connected to the operator at the New York Public Library.
“Thanks, Pete,” she said ten minutes later, hanging up.
“Well, what did you find out?”
“The first ball got started with William Howard Taft.”
“The fat man in the bathtub?”
“The president after Teddy Roosevelt.”
“Forty-six years ago.”
“Pete said it was because he’d had a tough day, meeting with the Suffragists at their convention, and telling them that if women got the vote power might end up in the wrong hands, or words to that effect. Big fat idiot! They gave him a piece of their minds, thank goodness.”
“I take it that was before women had the right to vote?”
“Ten long years before, big fat idiots keeping it to themselves.”
“Easy there, honey. That would have been a few years before I was born. Vicki knows more about who to vote for than me, anyway, but that’s only because I don’t read all that crap in the papers.”
“And you don’t have a radio or TV, so you can be as ignorant as you want to be.”
“Am I getting on your nerves?” Stan asked.
“No,” Betty said, squinting.
“Hey, Dottie has as much right to vote as any boy, probably more, when it comes to some of her friends, especially some of the boys,” Stan said.
“Amen,” said Betty.
“Who was playing?”
“What do you mean?”
“When the first ball was thrown out.”
“Oh, the Phillies were playing the Washington Senators. The White House thought it would pick Taft up if he went to the ball game, after his run-in with the Suffragists. The funny thing is, Taft was supposed to throw the ball to the catcher, Gabby Street, but instead he stood up from his seat in the stands and threw it to the pitcher, Walter Johnson, who wasn’t ready for it, and he almost got beaned. Anyway, they’ve been doing it ever since, except not during the war.”
“You think Eisenhower is going to be throwing out the first pitch on Wednesday?”
“I don’t think,” said Betty. “I know so. Pete said Ike is going to be there, throw out the first pitch, and stay for the game.”
“Goddamn it!” Stan grumbled.
“Where do we go from here?” asked Betty.
“We’re not going to the Secret Service.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
“All right, have Otis type out a warning, a warning in no uncertain terms, that a man is going to try to blow up Ike when he’s in the city for the game, on a typewriter he’s got in the shop that can never and never will be traced, even if he has to trash it the minute he’s done, and mail it with a Queens postmark, the main post office out there, next day delivery, marked urgent. Tell him to make sure it’s white gloves service, no fingerprints, and tell him to do it right now.”
“Do you think they’ll take it seriously?”
“I don’t know how many threats they get,” said Stan. “It’s got to be a boatload. I don’t know how they dope out what’s serious and what’s unserious.”
“What if they don’t take it seriously?”
“They take their precautions. I don’t know how they do what they do, but it’s got to be day-and-night round-the-clock. It can’t be easy keeping the top man safe, but it’s got to be harder actually killing him.”
“We could try to find the little man the doctor fingered. What do you think?”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Stan. “I think tomorrow is Sunday, Ezra and I have tickets for the game on Wednesday, so we would only have to put aside two days of work to stay on this. We’re not in business to do right, but to turn a profit, which is the right of way in our line of work, but if you and Ezra are willing, in your spare time, we could try.”
“You know Ezra, he’s mad as a hornet, and as for myself, I brought Barney on board, so I’m on board for it,” said Bettina.
She called Otis at Osner Business Machines, where he almost always worked on Saturdays, so he could work calmly and quietly by himself, the rest of the workshop more than half empty. He preferred being neat and organized and methodical than yakking it up with other repairmen.
“Ask Otis if he’s available the next few days, too.”
“Do you want him to join us for lunch?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea, ask if he’s free.”
“Otis is never free.”
“You know what I mean.”
Betty put her hand over the mouthpiece of the handset.
“He says he can meet us for lunch, but he’s busy, wants to know if we can come up to the restaurant at the boat basin, since he can make it over there in just a few minutes.”
Osner Business Machines was south of 79th Street on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, north of Hell’s Kitchen. The restaurant was inside the 79th Street Rotunda, built by Robert Moses during the West Side Highway’s conversion into a clean green parkway, as long as you had a car. Robert Moses didn’t like buses trucks or riff raff on his parkways.
When Stan and Bettina left the office for lunch at 12:30, Dwight Eisenhower had left his office five minutes earlier, changed into swimming trunks, and gone for a half-hour swim in the mansion’s pool. Unlike Richard Nixon, his vice-president, who had lately been lobbying for installing bowling lanes in the White House, Ike had been athletic all his life. He was a linebacker at West Point, a good one, although when he collided with Jim Thorpe in the 1912 game against Carlisle Indian Academy, the All-American running back was hardly bothered when Ike tried to drag him down.
“Nobody little is going to tackle Jim,” explained Jim Thorpe.
“You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” said King Gustav V earlier at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. “I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.”
Ten minutes after getting out of the pool President Eisenhower was being photographed, fresh dressed smiling, standing in front of asn American flag, for the newspapers, shaking hands with Judge William Brennan, who he had just appointed to fill the existing vacancy on the Supreme Court.
“Do you ever wonder about why they only ever sing the first part of the Star-Spangled Banner,” asked Betty when she and Stan were settled in their cab on the way to lunch.
“No,’ said Stan.
“You go to all those ballgames, and you were in the service, you’ve heard it hundreds of times.”
“I don’t want to disillusion you, Betty, but I don’t pay attention to songs, spangled or otherwise.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised, so I’m not,” said Betty.
The first performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at a ballgame was at the opening game of the season at the Union Ball and Cricket Grounds in Brooklyn in 1862. It became enshrined in baseball’s frame of mind after the furloughed Navy sailor and Boston Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas sang the song during the seventh inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series.
“The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw, when he conquered Hippo Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething duel by a score of 1 to 0,” was how the newspapers put it.
“It wasn’t even the real anthem until 1931, when Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law making it official,” said Betty.
“Since I didn’t know that I don’t know how many parts there are to it, either,” said Stan. “How many are there?”
“There are four verses.”
“I know the part they sing at ballgames.”
“That’s the first verse.”
“Why don’t they sing the other verses?”
“It would take too long, there are too many words, and some of the words, some people don’t want to hear them.”
“What words are those?”
“Their blood has washed out their foul footstep’s pollution, no refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
“I’ve never heard those lyrics,” said Stan. “How do you know them?”
“I didn’t know them, either, until last month,” said Bettina. “Pete told me about them.”
“He sounds like he might be a Commie,” said Stan, making Betty break into laughter.
Stan sometimes wondered where the money in it was, who was lining their pockets on the back of the Red Scare. He didn’t believe there was any patriotism in it. The Red Scare was a dodge. Harry Truman had taken care of all that six or seven years ago. He admitted to himself it got ambitious men elected, and supposed they were printing hundred-dollar bills with the ink the fear they inspired bled their way, which was the way grifters worked.
When they got to the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Henry Hudson Parkway, they detoured slightly to the restaurant, spotted Otis waiting for them as their cab pulled up, and got a table inside of a few minutes under one of the archways.
“What’s it all about?” asked Otis, after the waitress beat a retreat. Betty had wanted to make sure there were no “pre-fabricated meats, frozen foods, pre-pared potatoes, or commercial cakes in the larder.” The waitress blinked rapidly.
“There’s none of that, miss,” the middle-aged woman said, smoothing her apron. “I’ve been here nine years, and we make everything fresh to order.”
Stan ordered three glasses of Rheingold on draft.
“Is it about that shrink on Park Avenue?”
“Yes and no,” said Stan.
“Wait, let me ask Otis about the anthem,” said Bettina. “Did you know the Star- Spangled Banner has four verses, but nobody ever sings the last three verses?”
“Sure, everybody knows that,” said Otis.
“Is this a set up?” asked Stan, reaching for his glass of beer.
“Ezra told me that gal down on 66th got elected Miss Rheingold this year,” said Otis.
“It’s not official, yet, but she’s going to be the winner, at least, the way we hear it,” said Stan.
Rheingold Beer was brewed in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and every year a new Miss Rheingold was elected. Everywhere the beer was sold there were ballots with pictures of six pretty girls to pick from. “Want to give a pretty girl a great big break?’ is what it said at the top of the ballot. The only election in the country that drew more votes than the 25 million the Miss Rheingold election drew was the presidential election every four years.
So many ballots poured into the brewery, nobody could count them.
“We divide the ballots into six piles and weigh them every day,” said Walter Liebman, a chip off the old block of the family. The clan had been malting mashing boiling fermenting and kegging Rheingold for more than a hundred years.
Miss Rheingold was in magazines, on billboards, and on the side panels of beer trucks. She wore white gloves and signed autographs. She made promotional tours on both coasts, wore a rhinestone tiara and carried a scepter, rode in parades in an open-top Cadillac wearing a hand-stitched ivory satin dress, and waved to her admirers.
The only thing she wasn’t allowed to do was ever be seen or photographed drinking a glass of beer. There were other things the brewer frowned upon. The Duluc Detective Agency was one of the agencies that did background checks on the six finalists.
“One of the things you don’t want is a Miss Rheingold who is a problem,” said Walter Liebman.
“Who is she?” asked Betty.
“Her name is Hillie Merritt,” said Stan. “She’s a $25-a-week receptionist at Fortune magazine, married, with a one-year-old.”
“How can you be a miss when you’re married?” asked Betty.
“You can’t, not technically, but it doesn’t seem to matter to old man Liebman. One of the finalists had to be dropped when Ezra found out, even though she was married to a working man, she was living with a drummer.”
“Out of wedlock?”
“Out of wedlock.”
“My God, such a beautiful girl,” said Walter Liebman. “But living with a drummer!”
“Aren’t drummers usually broke?” Betty asked.
Otis and Stan both knew Betty was a jazz band fan. “If you say so,” said Otis. The drummer wasn’t that kind of drummer. He was more of a Slick Willie.
“Hillie was next in line, got on the ballot, and in the end, it wasn’t even close,” said Stan. “She won going away.”
Over lunch he filled Otis in.
“I can give you the next three days, no problem,” said Otis when Stan was done. “We should be able to brainstorm our man down tomorrow, then go look for him. I am thinking he has got to be close to the Dodgers somehow, otherwise he wouldn’t have much chance of getting close to Eisenhower.”
“Are you figuring it the same way I am?”
“I think so.”
Stan studied the water flowing past them. “He’ll fly into LaGuardia, after lunch, they drive to Ebbets Field, the big man throws out the first pitch, watches the game, and is back in D. C. for dinner, unless the little man blows him up first.”
“That’s the way I see it.”
“He’ll do it during the game. That’s when he’ll have a chance. Otherwise, there is no chance.”
“That’s how I’m looking at that part of it, too.”
“Did you get that letter mailed?”
It was 3 o’clock when Stan and Betty got back to the office. Stan picked up a scrap of paper Ezra had left lying in the middle of his desktop. There was a fifty-cent piece on top of the note.
“Bumpy wants to talk.”
“I can’t be a catfish without no waffles,” said Bumpy Williams.
Bumpy and Stan walked out the back door of the Warsaw Bakery, around to the front, and down the street.
“I get the picture,” said Stan.
Tropical storm Flossy had torn itself to pieces in small bits and passed harmlessly east of the city the day before. It was late in the afternoon, it was in the low 70s, the sun was starting to arc downwards, but the light was still good, sunny and pleasant. The Weather Bureau was keeping a close watch on rain squalls moving up from the Caribbean.
“It is the weakest sort of a disturbance, but it remains as a suspicious area,” the bureau said.
No one was taking it seriously. Stan and Bumpy weren’t paying attention. They had moveable feasting on the brain.
“So, you are up for a bite to eat?”
“The sooner the better,” said Bumpy.
They crossed Lorimer Street and walked into McCarren Park, around two baseball fields, and past the pool building, the biggest of the eleven built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In the summer it was one of the social hubs of Greenpoint. The entrance to the pool was mammoth, arched in brick, and the pool could hold, if it absolutely had to, close to seven thousand swimmers.
Bumpy looked down, as they walked the other way, at a copy of that week’s New York Age Defender left on a park bench.
“South Is Using ‘Hitler System’” screamed the headline on the front page.
“I’ll bet they goddamn do,” he muttered to himself.
Stan hailed a cab when he and Bumpy stepped out of the park and onto North 12th Street.
“Tom’s on Washington,” he told the cabbie. “Do you know it?”
“Prospect Heights, mister. About three miles, maybe ten minutes. Ain’t it a breakfast and lunch joint? No mind, we’ll get you there under the wire, whether it is, or not.”
Less than ten minutes later the cabbie deposited them in front of Tom’s Restaurant. Stan paid the fare. Bumpy took one look and squinted. It was a small eatery, the windows filled with neon flyers advertisements menus painted platters and both real and artificial plants.
“What’s that?” asked Bumpy, pointing to a shiny undersized fake rhododendron.
“Some new kind of plastic.”
“That what tomorrow looks like?”
“Probably,” said Stan.
High on the window to the right of the door white block letters said, “TOM’S EST. 1936.” The casing was dark brown, although above it the signage was white with “RESTAURANT” in lime green and “DRINK COCA COLA” in red and white.
“How’s the food?” asked Bumpy, taking a step back.
“Let’s go in, some of the Dodgers eat here, but I’ll let you decide for yourself,” said Stan.
Ebbets Field was nearby. Jackie Robinson had a sweet tooth and liked Tom’s Frosties, stopping in before day games for a heap of ice cream mixed with a thimbleful of milk.
“In here, Jackie can sit wherever he wants,” said Gus Vlahavas. There were some diners where the star ballplayer didn’t go because he couldn’t sit down where he wanted without sour looks on the menu. There were other diners he never minded if a cracker with a baseball bat ran the front counter.
Inside the door a small tart-looking late thirtyish woman greeted them.
“Hey Stella, I hope we’re not too late for a late lunch. Have you got a booth for me and my friend?” asked Stan, nodding at Bumpy.
“Yes, come on, there’s an empty booth in the back.”
In the back wasn’t far back. It might as well have been the front. Stan and Bumpy slid into a booth. Stan flipped cigarettes out for both of them. Bumpy slumped back, letting the smoke slither down into his lungs, exhaling slowly. Stan noticed him counting the American flags in the dining room, big and small, free-standing and on the walls, with his eyes.
“Gus’s grandfather, Constantin, named the restaurant Tom’s to honor his son,” explained Stan. “Tom was over in the Philippines, got shot up, won some medals for bravery.”
“I know you like it black,” Stella said to Stan. “But your black friend, him I don’t know.”
Stella Vlahavas lived upstairs above the restaurant with her husband, worked the cash register, and knew, like her daughter-in-law Phoeni knew, how everyone took their coffee once they had gotten coffee once at Tom’s.
“Cream and sugar ma’am, thank you,” said Bumpy.
“Where’s Gus?” asked Stan.
“He and Nonie had to run home for a minute,” said Stella. Gus and Phoeni who everyone called Nonie, lived in a brownstone around the corner. Gus had worked at the restaurant since he was nine years old, when it was an ice cream shop. He fired up the grill for his father every morning at 5 AM.
“Tom does the cooking,” Stan said to Bumpy. “I recommend the meat loaf. It’s the star attraction.”
Bumpy had a platter of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash.
Stan ate light, blueberry and ricotta pancakes served with flavored butter.
“All right, what do you have in mind?” asked Bumpy, finishing his lunch, pushing his empty platter away, fiddling with a toothpick.
Stella brought them a plate of cookies and orange slices, refilling their coffee cups.
“What I have in mind is you throwing in with us,” said Stan. “We’ve been talking about adding a man, and you strike me as capable. I think you know you don’t get three strikes with the mob. It’s strike one and you’re out. It’s not whether, it’s when, when it comes to the hoods. This might be the when. You and the other two wise guys didn’t get it done the other night.”
“The hell if I don’t know it.”
“Throw in with us, the pay is good, you’d be surprised, even better sometimes than other times.”
“Bird of paradise, huh?”
“I’ll tell you what the bird of paradise is, which is the Belgian waffle sundae for dessert.”
Bumpy ordered the Belgian waffle sundae.
“No, I’m not saying it’s all clover,” said Stan. “What I am saying is it’s good, it’s steady, and we won’t stick a knife in your back. We might tell you to take a walk, but it won’t be a walk off the end of a pier in the middle of the night. We don’t expect anyone toeing the line blindly, or dying for us, or any of that Hitler bullshit, like the gangsters do. We’re not catbirds.”
“I’ll think about it,” Bumpy said.
“No, no thinking,” Stan said. “You’re either in with us or you’re not.”
Bumpy looked down at what was on his plate.
“No, none of that.”
“OK, hell, I’m in,” he said, digging into his waffle sundae.
When their late lunch was done Stan paid the check, said hello and goodbye to Gus, who walked in as they walked out, and he and Bumpy shook hands to seal the deal.
“You know where we are, since you’ve been keeping eagle eyes on us,” said Stan. “Don’t come into the office before nine, but don’t come in after ten, either. I’ll see you Monday.”
“Monday it is, bossman.”
“No, you can’t. It’s impossible.”
“I bet I can,” said Tommy, casting his mind’s eye on as the crow flies, on the hands of the clock, thinking it wasn’t far-fetched, not for what he had in mind to try. The brew crew at his table were making him out the chump, but he had the ace card.
“If you’re saying, Thomy Fitz, you can make it from New Jersey to here anytime you want to in fifteen minutes flat, I’ll take that bet,” said Bulmer MacNeill, waving his hands, ready to reach for his wallet.
“I’ll be back here in no time give or take a minute and be having a draft to celebrate before anybody catches their wheezy beery breath.”
“Watch your mouth,” said Bulmer. “There’s still plenty of us left living and breathing in the neighborhood.”
“Hell, we’ll all take that bet,” piped up the two other young men at the table.
“I’ll make a fine landing at our place here and have a fine time taking your money,” Thomas Fitzgerald laughed, bending his elbow again that early evening with his friends at a bachelor party being staged at Joe’s, a corner bar at St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street in Washington Heights.
“Helen’s not going to like you losing the family fortune,” said Pat Hartling.
“I’m going to be piling it on to the family fortune,” said Tommy. “The wife is going to be happy as pie.”
“The bet’s on?”
“It’s on, but not until round midnight, and I’ll need one of you to come with me, so we’re all clear about when I got started and when I got back here, so that there is no disagreement among friends afterwards.”
“You’re on,” said Bulmer.
It was after midnight when Tommy and Bulmer staggered out of Joe’s, staggered to Tommy’s car, and staggered down a succession of roads and streets to the Teterboro School of Aeronautics on the west side of the Hudson River. It was near Tommy’s home in Emerson, New Jersey. He drove slowly carefully watchfully. His wife and sons were sound asleep, and he didn’t want to wake them. It was close to one o’clock when he spotted the red and white Cessna 140 on the runway. He eyeballed its wingspan, which he estimated at about thirty feet.
“That’ll do,” he thought. He checked the underside of the wings. It said N252.
“Never seen that one. I wonder whose it is?” he asked himself.
“Tommy, what’s going on?” asked Bulmer, teetering on the dizzy expanse of concrete.
Tommy opened the door on the pilot’s side and looked at the controls. It was a late 1940s model with a white dashboard, black and red control wheels, and two-tone tan seats. It had shipshape wing flaps and he guessed the stall speed was about 35 knots.
“This will do just fine,” he said to himself.
He had a pilot’s license, but not a plane. He hardly ever actually flew an airplane, although he knew them well enough. Tommy Fitzgerald was a union steamfitter and worked part-time as a mechanic at the airport. Twelve years earlier he lied about his age and volunteered for the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific and saw combat. When the war ended, he was fifteen years old. Four years later he volunteered for the Army and was sent to Korea. He came home after winning both the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
“During a strategic withdrawal Corporal Fitzpatrick noticed a wounded officer, about 100 yards forward of his position. Attempting a rescue, he and a companion were seriously wounded. Despite severe pain and loss of blood, Corporal Fitzpatrick made it back to safety, directed a second successful rescue party while organizing and providing covering fire to support the rescue,” is what the Silver Star citation said.
“You saved my life,” is what the officer said.
After recovering he was sent home. But first he went to Tokyo. He did some more recovering there. Then he went to San Francisco. He had a good time and needed to recover again afterwards.
Stealing a Cessna wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Landing it in front of Joe’s was going to be challenging, but he was sure he could do it. Besides, he needed another drink-or-two before chalking up the night. He checked the gas gauge. The gas tank was nearly full. George Washington High School was near the bar. He could land on their lighted ball field.
“What time is it?”
“You’re going back in that thing?” Bulmer asked, slow on the uptake..
“Take my car,” said Tommy. “I’ll take off at a quarter after two. Check your watch when I’m off the ground. I’ll see you back at Joe’s.”
He made sure the radio and navigation lights were off. The Cessna was a simple airplane, a steadfast Continental engine up front, manual flaps, a yoke, throttle, and rudders. He pushed the power up for takeoff. It was a short strip, so he levered the flaps in 25 degrees as he hit 30 knots. The plane launched itself into the air and he bled the flaps off. Inside of a couple of minutes he was at a 90-knot cruise speed with a 2:30 AM by his reckoning landing at Joe’s.
The Teterboro control tower operator watched the airplane take off. It took him a minute to realize it didn’t have clearance. It took him another minute to realize whoever was piloting the plane wasn’t responding to his radio calls. It took him a few more minutes to find out the plane been stolen. He picked up the telephone and dialed the police.
Sailing over New York City the bird’s-eye view from the airplane at 5000 feet was of the big city all wide bright spread out. The cabin was only three-or-so feet across at the elbows and Tommy could see clearly on both sides of him. But the field at George Washington High School was dark. What had made him think it would be lit up? He circled the school and thought fast. He banked the Cessna, keeping the sink rate steady, blipped the throttle over the threshold and rolled the yoke forward. He soared over Snake Hill, gliding between stores buildings tenements on both sides of the street, and landed neatly in front of Joe’s.
“I saw something coming down,” said John Johnson, driving a jalopy, slamming on his brakes. “I didn’t know what to imagine. The plane skidded over the top of my car and made a perfect landing ahead of me. I saw a man get out and run.”
The man was husky tall wearing a gray suit bare headed and laughing up a storm. Tommy ran into Joe’s. It was 2:25 in the morning. It was twenty minutes before last call and more than a half-hour before closing time.
“Time to pay up, boys,” he said, throwing himself down onto a bar stool, swiveling to face his friends.
“He’ll be along. Now reach for your wallets.”
Bumpy didn’t often leave Harlem on Saturday nights for Striver’s Row or Sugar Hill or Washington Heights, but there was a bar in Washington Heights he liked, and after lunch with Stan Riddman, taking a nap, changing his clothes, and putting some money in his wallet, he took a subway to the 191st station. He had seen neighborhood kids jump the fence at 200th Street and jump on top of the IRT 7th Avenue cars, riding them to Van Courtland Park. He knew without a doubt that one of them was going to kill himself doing that one of these days. He walked up out of the subway and down the street towards Shorty’s.
There was gang graffiti everywhere on a brick wall that once was part of an apartment building that collapsed. Lucky Lords. The Enchanters. Egyptian Kings. One of the Egyptian Kings, called the Cape Man, had shot a Lucky Lord, who ran out of luck that day and went to the Lord.
Farther down somebody had spray-painted “GUNS FOR THE JEWS.”
There were plenty of Irish and Germans and Italians in Washington Heights, but there were Jews, too, and some Puerto Ricans, as well as Negroes. Irish whiskey, Italian bread and pasta, and Jewish pastries were always right around the corner. The five-story apartment building that had collapsed into a heap happened when the abandoned icehouse next to it exploded.
“It was horrible, said Dorothy Fiege. “The rumor mill said it was kids playing with matches, causing leftover ammonia fumes to ignite. The icehouse came down and cut the apartment building in half. It was like you were looking into a dollhouse. I don’t remember how many people were killed, but among them was Old Joe, the Good Humor Ice Cream man who used to ride his refrigerated bicycle around the neighborhood.”
Up and down Washington Heights was working men and women, kids, baby carriages, and veterans. Some of them limped, others walked with a cane, and one walked very carefully. His eyes had been damaged by a grenade. More than a few of them drank too much, even though most of them were still family men and held steady jobs.
Bumpy strolled into Shorty’s and found a seat on a stool near the end of the bar. He was black and free. That felt good. On Monday he would have steady work. What was he thinking? He had been thinking about it and now it happened. It deserved a drink. He settled in for one or two.
Harvey Joffe, a Surface Transportation bus driver, was on 191st Street when the Cessna came in from nowhere for a landing
“I had just got back into my seat when all of a sudden I heard something that sounded like a large fan,” he said. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this plane coming at me. The plane hit the ground and bounced twenty feet in the air. I thought he was going to take off again. Then he hit the ground again and taxied. “
Harvey Joffe stopped and jumped out of his bus.
“God forbid if I ever hit a plane. What could I say at the safety hearing?”
“That was an almost impossible landing,” said Sgt. Harold Behrens of the Police Aviation Bureau.
“When I saw it, I thought maybe they had trucked it in, as a practical joke,” said Sammy Garcia, a kid in the neighborhood who woke up slowly from a dream and looked out his bedroom window.
“I thought, there was no way a man landed in that narrow street.”
“A great many terrible things could have happened,” said Magistrate Edward Chapman on Monday morning when Tommy Fitzgerald was arraigned for breaking the city code forbidding landing airplanes on New York City streets.
That same morning the Cessna 140, after being pushed aside to allow busses and cars to get by, with the back half of it on the sidewalk and the wheels in the gutter, was taken apart and towed to the police station at 182nd Street.
“He landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” said Fred Hartling, a friend of the family who lived in the neighborhood. “Tommy had a crazy side, but he pulled off a miracle.”
“What the hell is that?” Bumpy asked himself, stopping short coming out of Shorty’s, astonished at the sight of an airplane in the middle of the street in the middle of Washington Heights in the middle of Manhattan.
“That’s a tight fit,” he thought. Then he noticed it was blocking the front of the opening to the subway.
Where was there another station? How was he going to get back to Harlem? Maybe he could boost somebody’s jalopy. He walked up the street, in the direction home, keeping his eyes wide open, just in case anything else came down from the sky.
“You look like hell,” Stan said.
“I feel like hell,” said Bettina, looking gray.
“Long night,” she said.
“You’ve had coffee?”
When he was at the counter in the deli on the corner, Stan asked if he could have take-out soup, in their biggest container, but “substitute coffee for the soup.”
“Betty,” he said.
“Gotcha,” said the counterman, handing Stan a quart of hot coffee.
“What was the occasion?” Stan asked as Betty rubbed her temples and slurped the inky black tonic.
“Miles Davis,” she said. “He and his band have been at the Café Bohemia most of the month and yesterday was his last night, so I had to go. Pete and I made a night of it, before the show, at the show, and after the show. Brother, I need an aspirin.”
Stan shook out two tablets of Bayer.
“More?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” said Betty.
“Miles Davis is the trumpet player, right?”
“Right, and he’s got a four-pack that plays with him, and they are hot.”
The Miles Davis Quintet was Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on double bass, Red Garland on piano, and John Coltrane on tenor sax. They were touring promoting their Hackensack, New Jersey recordings, due for release starting the next month.
“Trane was blowing his ass off,” said Miles Davis after the show. “He was pushing each chord to its outer limits, out into space.”
It was cookin’ with Miles.
“As great as Trane was sounding, Philly Joe was the fire that was making a lot of shit happen,” the horn man said. “Philly knew everything I was going to do, everything I was going to play. He anticipated me, felt what I was thinking. Paul was playing like he’d been around forever and Red was giving me that Ahmad Jamal light touch, and a little bit of Erroll Garner, along with his own shit up in all of that. So, everything was happening.”
Cafe Bohemia was a small club, seating about a tight hundred, with a small sturdy stage and a slightly bigger bar. It had only been open a year, although it had been open for years before that.
“For six years I tried to make the place pay,” said Jimmy Garofolo, the club’s owner, who lived across the street. “First as a bar and restaurant, then with girly shows, and then with various acts. One night I had to throw out a character who had been drinking without any money to pay for it. The next thing I knew, he was back offering to play a few weeks to pay off his obligation, and because he wanted a regular home base from which to play when he was between engagements.”
“I’ve not been there, never heard of it,” said Stan. “Where is it?”
“Greenwich Village,” said Betty.
“Somebody told me his name was Charlie Parker and he was a saxophonist,” said Jimmy. “I was pretty naïve about jazz at the time and I didn’t know him from beans, but it turned out he was a big man in the jazz world. When I put out signs announcing he was going to play, I had a stream of people coming in wanting to know if the great Charlie Parker was going to play here. It was the way they said ‘here’ that got me.”
“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” said Charlie Parker between drinks.
The Yardbird died before ever taking the stage at Café Bohemia, before making good on his obligation. But Café Bohemia became a happening, a hotbed of jazz. It was Gravesend when Miles Davis played there.
“The audience regarded the music as an art form, and even acted a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles,” said George Avakian, adding color to the painting.
“No rock ‘n roll, no vocalists, no big bands, no nuttin’ except small jazz combos,” said Jimmy. “Once Birdland and Basin Street were the mecca of all true jazzmen. Now a lot of them won’t go on the road until they’ve played the Bohemia.”
“Big crowd?” asked Stan.
“Small crowd,” said Betty, “but too big for the place. We barely got in, but we made it, and we didn’t give up our seats the rest of the night for nothing. Whenever one of us had to get up, the other one stayed put.”
“They played into the night?”
“They played until closing time. They might have kept playing until sunrise if the management hadn’t started closing the place. Then when Pete and I were leaving, there was an end of the world crank parading the sidewalk. He had a sandwich sign in front of him. It said, ‘The End is Near.’ I don’t know what got into me, but I asked him, “Mister, is that a bad thing or a good thing?” He shot me a look, that if looks could kill, I would be looking worse that I do now.”
The sharp jaundiced dirty look was followed by a dirty hand that thrust a fire and brimstone leaflet at her. There was a picture of a Peter Panda missile spewing flames across the sky on the paper.
“Project 56,” he said. “We’re all going to burn.”
“How was the music?” Stan asked.
“High intensity,” said Betty. “Spontaneous, full of bop, swinging like crazy.”
Stan smiled and rubbed his lower lip with his index finger.
“You don’t know bop from hop, do you?” Betty asked.
“I wouldn’t get past the first dime of the first dollar of the sixty-four-dollar question if that was the first question,” said Stan. “But, from across the office it looks to me like you had a good time.”
“We met somebody there, somebody who knew Jackson Pollack.”
“You don’t say,” said Stan. “Who was it?”
“A woman at the next table, smoking up a storm. She was doodling, sketching the band, and when I looked over, I could tell the drawing was good, very good. When I asked her, she said her name was Helen, and when I asked her if she was an artist, she said, yes, she was Helen Frankenthaler, which didn’t mean boo to me, but it turns out she’s one of the abstract painters, and she knew Jackson Pollack. She said she got started, made her breakthrough, because of him.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what she said, but then the man she was with, somebody named Clem, he had to be twice her age, sour-looking, broke in and piped up saying she made her breakthrough when she met him, which made her see red.”
“Is that right?”
“What is this right and wrong thing you’ve got going, but, yes, that’s right.”
“Maybe from his side, but not from hers, definitely not. Pete said she looked like he was a bad taste in her mouth, like she wanted to spit him out.”
“Pete should know,” said Stan.
“You’re right about that, bird dog,” said Betty.
“Did she mean it in a personal way, this breakthrough?” asked Stan.
“No, I think she meant it in some kind of artist technical way. There was something bad jagged going on with the Clem, though.”
“Something tense personal, like he got on her nerves, like I said. It was like she wanted him gone.”
“Did she say anything personal about our man?”
“She said when she heard the news about Jackson, she was shocked. She said she could hardly believe it. She said he was a mess, had been a mess for a long time, wasn’t going to stop being a mess, but he could handle any amount of booze and handle any car no matter how smashed he was.”
“That ties into what we think we know,” said Stan.
The door to the office opened and Otis walked in, nodded to Stan, looked at Betty, and said, “You look like hell.”
“Enough of that,” she said, and sloshed more coffee down the hatch.
Otis rolled a chair to the client side of Stan’s desk and sat down. He flipped open a memo notepad, pulled a black Eberhard Microtomic pencil out of his pocket, and put the notepad and pencil on Stan’s desk.
“Long night?” he asked Betty.
“Miles Davis down in the village,” she said.
“He’s got one hell of a band these days,” said Otis.
“You know about them?” asked Stan.
“Of course,” said Otis.
“Why is lately I seem to be the last one to know?” Stan grumbled. “All right, let’s get started, see if we can narrow down who our rocket from the tombs might be.”
“First steps always work for me,” said Otis.
“We know the shrink jazzed Jackson Pollack up to drive his car off the road and get himself killed,” said Stan. “We know he has worked up another man to do something, which looks like it is blowing up Eisenhower. We know the mob has been brought in for protection, although I would be surprised if they know what they are on the wrong side of. Assassinations are their style, but not this, at least I don’t think so. We know the White House is flying into the game on Wednesday afternoon, and if anything is going to happen it is going to happen at Ebbets Field.”
“The airport will be tight as a drum, the route to the ballpark will be kept out of the papers, the same for the way back, and the same for security at the airport on the flight out,” said Otis. “If it’s going to happen, I agree, the odds are it’s going to happen at the ballgame.”
“We think our bomber is somebody under 30, a small man, by the name of Tony de Marco,” said Stan. “How many Anthony de Marco’s are there in the five boroughs?”
“Not counting Staten island, where every other person is Italian, there are six hundred and nineteen Anthony de Marco’s,” said Betty.
“How do you know that?” asked Otis.
“Let your thumbs do the walking,” said Betty.
“You leafed through the phone book?”
“I slipped on my nubbed thumb tip and took a stroll.”
“You should take that to Madison Avenue, maybe AT&T would be interested in a new slogan.”
“Who walks on their thumbs?”
“How about let your fingers do the walking?”
“That sounds better.”
“Let’s get back on track here,” Stan said.
“There are too many Tony’s to go looking for in just a few days, even if there were lots more of us,” said Otis.
“There are too many wop neighborhoods in the city, no matter how many of us there were,” said Stan. “He might even be up the road, or out on Long island.”
“Do we know what he looks like?” asked Betty.
“No, we don’t,” said Stan. “That gives me an idea. Let’s get a drawing of him. The shrink can flesh him out for us. We just need an artist. Is Lefty in town, do you know?”
“He’s in town until tomorrow,” said Otis.
Gurnee Ford was an apprentice locomotive engineer for the New York Central, hauling passenger freight from the city to Albany Buffalo Cleveland Chicago St. Louis and back. The engineer sat on the left of the cab of the diesel-electric locomotive. Gurnee sat on the right side, and by necessity used his left hand on most of the controls and devices. It didn’t take long for him to become Lefty.
He had been an art student until he got married and inside of three years had a family, a boy and a girl. He gave up art. He started work on the railroad as a brakeman, became a head brakeman, and was soon up front. He kept a sketchbook, drawing pictures for his children of the places the train went.
“Can you roust him up, tell him it’s worth a hundred, take him over to the bakery, and sit him down with the doc?”
“Yes, I can do that,” said Otis, making a note in his notepad.
“I want a police sketch, as good as possible, of Tony de Marco. Before you sit Lefty down in front of him, talk to the shrink in a quiet corner, and tell him I will be showing the drawing to his office receptionist the first thing Monday morning, and if she doesn’t recognize Tony in the drawing, I am going to go right to the bakery and beat his brains out, toss him in the street for the dogs, and afterwards throw his body into the East River.”
“In those words?”
“In those words, slowly and surely, and make sure he knows I said so. He’ll understand to stay tried and true then.”
After Otis was gone, Betty sighed.
“I finally feel better,” she said. “That head shrinker bothers me.”
“You and me both, sister,” Stan said.
“You should have been there,” she said. “It was a hell of a show.”
“Maybe next time.”
“Sure,” said Betty. “Bring Vicki, we’ll make a night of it.”
“That might be too much night for Vic.”
“She’s a big girl. Besides, you mean it might be too much for you.”
“How do you figure the big show?”
“Since it’s almost sure to happen at the ballpark, he’s got to somehow be a part of the Dodgers,” Betty said. “Not one of the ballplayers, but no Joe Schmo in the stands, either. I figure him to be someone who works for the team, selling tickets, beer man, grounds crew, somebody like that.”
“All right,” Stan said. “Once we get our sketch that’s the track we’ll take. You be here bright and early tomorrow, we’ll get over to Park Avenue, you talk to the gal behind the desk, and show her the sketch. If she can say it’s him, we’ll go over to Ebbets Field and start snooping.”
“You’re the boss,” said Bettina, and started humming a tune.
“What’s that?” asked Stan.
“Something Miles Davis played last night.”
“It sounds good.” said Stan. “What’s it called?”
“Just Squeeze Me.”
“Let’s see if we can put the squeeze on our man,” Stan said, cold sober pokerfaced.
Monday morning, the 1st day of October, the weather was good, in the high 50s, with no rain predicted the rest of the week in the Ohio Valley or on the East Coast. In two weeks to the day, it would be Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday. In six weeks to the day, it would be Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday. The presidential election was coming up next month. The cake was in the oven.
By the time the sun was up and running Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower had been awake more than two hours. They arrived at the underground Union Terminal Station in Cleveland, Ohio, riding a 12-car campaign train on an overnight run from Washington. The Terminal Tower office complex foundations were 250 feet deep. More than a thousand buildings were demolished finding space for it in 1924. When it was done in 1927 it was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City. The first Nickel Plate Railroad train pulled into the station two years later to hurrahs.
The station was in the prime of its life, but President Eisenhower was putting intercity train travel and the Cleveland Union Terminal, and all its kind, slowly but surely out of business by federally subsidizing a network of interstate highways.
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” he explained, without a doubt in his mind about the right-of-way of his road project. It had been in the back of his mind since the Louisiana Maneuvers before the war. It was when his U. S. Army trucks got stuck all over the place because of the country’s bad roads that he said to himself, “We need better roads.”
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, across the street, glistened in the early autumn sun. The fire department had spray cleaned the monument over the weekend, showering it with hundreds of gallons of white vinegar, and then hosing off the bird droppings and grime. The hometown vermin didn’t appreciate it, but what could they do?
The monument was built thirty years after the Civil War, a 125-foot granite shaft on top of a square base housing a memorial hall, larger than life bronzes lining the outside, and marble tablets inside with all the names of the more than nine thousand Union soldiers from Cuyahoga County, the county in which the city lay, who were shot dead during the war by Johnny Reb.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” said Robert Bridle, manager of the hotel. “Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” he said again, turning to Anthony Celebrezze, the city’s mayor. The Hotel Cleveland was shaped like an “E” opening onto Superior Avenue. Mr. Brindle’s mouth puckered like an “O” when he said “morning.” The one thousand rooms were built in 1918 by the Van Sweringen brothers, who built the Union Terminal Station ten years later.
Anthony Celebrezze was a Democrat, mayor of the fifth-largest city in the United States. He knew how to get things done. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, meant the keys to the federal purse-strings to him. He was going to try to loosen those strings. He knew how to roll with the punches if he had to. He knew it was a rat race.
The mayor’s father had been a shepherd in Italy, and then a track laborer on the Wheeling and Lake Erie after he emigrated to the United States. Tony Celebrezze put himself through John Carroll College by working as a freight truck driver and a boxer, fighting it out for peanuts in bitter undercards.
Dwight Eisenhower was giving a speech in the hotel to the faithful, taking a short break, and then giving a speech from the monument to friends enemies passersby loafers and the lunch crowd. Downtown Cleveland was spic and span. Ike liked what he saw.
It was noon on the dot when he greeted more than nine hundred invited guests to the Sales Executive Group Luncheon in the Main Ballroom. He spoke briefly, walked out of the hotel, and crossed the street to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He strode up some stairs to the speaker’s platform. He was giving his speech there at twelve-thirty.
He was in the middle of two months of pressing the flesh kissing babies and giving the same stump speech. His mouth had gone dry, and palms rubbed chapped. Flecks of baby spit littered his suits. He rubbed somebody’s dandruff out of his eyes. When he looked, a dozen black and white Cleveland Police cars blocked off Euclid Avenue, Superior Avenue, Ontario Street, and Rockwell Avenue.
Bert Mert and Luke scampered out of the Memorial Room of the monument to the roof and to the base of the polished black stone column. The three rats could have climbed to the top, one hundred and twenty-five feet to the top, wending up the six foliated bronze bands listing the names of the thirty battles in which soldiers from Cuyahoga County fought, if they wanted to. Their eyesight wasn’t the best, not like their sense of smell, but their perch was more than view enough.
Since it was only a month to the election, President Eisenhower got right to the point.
“The opposition say that they alone truly care for the working men and women of America, and that the Republican party is a vague kind of political conspiracy by big business to destroy organized labor and bring hunger and torment to every worker in America,” he told the overflow crowd.
“That’s right!” a loudmouth yelled from the crowd.
Secret Service agents watched from the roofs of the May Company and Higbee’s, and from inside the twin steeples of the Old Stone Church. The Berea sandstone of the church had long since turned black from air pollution floating up from the Flats, the nearby industrial valley that sprawled on both sides of the Cuyahoga River. The sun gleamed on the terra cotta façade of the May Company. The faces of shoppers were pressed against upper story windows of the two department stores.
The pastor of the Presbyterian church sat in a lawn chair outside his front doors, his sleeves rolled up, warm in the warm October day. He had a ploughman’s sandwich, cheese and pickle, wrapped in wax paper in his lap. He unwrapped his sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, slowly, methodically. The sky above Public Square was dappled with small passing clouds. He stretched his legs out.
His father had been a pastor. He grew up in the church. He served on all the church committees, was a volunteer at all the events, and made all the hospital and home care visits. Thank God for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thought, basking on a day off.
Bert and Mert were Tremont twins. Luke was an orphan. He didn’t know where he came from. All his friends called him Eaka Mouse, even though he was a rat. They usually slept during the day and foraged at night, avoiding birds, but this was a special occasion. They had never seen the top man of the Grand Old Party up close. The birds were staying away because of the hullaballoo, but the rodents couldn’t contain their curiosity.
“This is more than political bunk,” said President Eisenhower. “Those men are fretting fear and worried doubt. It is wicked nonsense. We have given to our nation the kind of government that is living witness to a basic virtue in a democracy, public morality, public service, and public trust. There is no special favoritism, cronyism, or laxity in our administration.”
“That’s what they all say, “somebody bellowed.
Luke had the best sense of smell of the three of them. He led the way when they went searching for food, which was fifteen, twenty times a day. Their favorite foods were seeds and grains, which made the monument an all-day dream diner for rats. It was visited by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, many of whom left behind crumbs of whatever they were snacking on.
The pickings today were going to be out of this world.
In the wild they were vegetarians, but city life was different. They ate almost anything they could get. None of them liked cheese. No rat they knew liked cheese. They laughed at the traps filled with shavings of it. They weren’t looney tunes. Besides, they could smell the hand of the craft of man on carefully prepared cheese and knew to beware.
“The men of the opposition know perfectly well that one of the main reasons they were thrown out of office four years ago was their tolerance of the fire of inflation,” said President Eisenhower. “Just in the final seven years of their tenure of office this economic fever had cut the value of the dollar by almost one-third, damaging the livelihood of the aged, the pensioned, all salaried workers.”
“What about the Bonus Army?” a harsh voice called out. “Whadda ya got to say about that?”
Luke had recently chewed up a front page of the Cleveland Press for bedding. He noticed a feature article about last month’s government index showing living costs had gone up to a record high point.
“The cost of living has been remarkably stabilized,” the trim balding man in a brown suit below them earnestly proclaimed “During the previous Democratic administration, the cost-of-living increase was twenty times as great.”
Mert gave Bert and Luke the high sign. They had heard the lying grift of the campaign trail wash over them before. They couldn’t go down to look for food, but the speechifying was making them sleepy. It was a lot of cutting corners and trying to corner the other guy. The three rats stretched, groomed themselves briefly, efficiently, curled up together, and were soon napping.
President Eisenhower wrapped up his speech, stepped down from the platform, and was in his limo in his motorcade on its way to Cleveland Hopkins Airport by one o’clock. He and Mamie boarded the Columbine and were airborne to Lexington, Kentucky by one-thirty. In two days, at about the same time of day, Dwight Eisenhower would be tossing out the first pitch of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of tossing out half-truths.
The rodents ate almost anything but avoided ice cream. They loved Canadian bacon more than anything. Most days, Monday through Saturday, as long as the weather was good, they looked forward to the nut lady, the woman who looked more-or-less like Doris Day and Mammy Two Shoes all rolled up in one, a middle-aged Slovenian woman with dark skin dark hair dark eyes, taking their mid-day break on the steps of the monument. She worked across the square, at Morrow’s Nut House, near the revolving doors of the May Company.
She brought them bits of bacon mixed together with nuts.
The nut lady worked behind the glass counter display case, selling fresh warm lightly salted cashews and redskin peanuts, Spanish peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and oily rich walnuts. Morrow’s Nut House was on the corner, on the intersection, at a CTS bus stop where passengers lingered waiting for their ride. The shop pumped the smell of roasting nuts out onto the sidewalk all day long.
Bert Mert and Luke weren’t waiting for her today. There was a horn of plenty waiting for them on all sides of the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Who said the GOP never did anything for the little man? They were ready to vote for Ike at a minute’s notice.
But they had better things to do with their time. They were their own men. The three rats had girlfriends, Mary, Suzy, and Perla waiting in the wings ready to make nice.
“Hey guys, let’s rake it in, and go to the submarine races,” said Bert.
The crowd had dispersed. The lunch time crowd went back to work. The shoppers went back to the stores. The loafers went back to loafing.
Eaka Mouse knew exactly what Bert meant. It was juice it up and hanky-panky time. They weren’t three blind mice.
“Come on, snake, let’s rattle.”
“Ike Campaigns in Cleveland” was the caption under a picture of the Chief Executive waving smiling from the window of his train pulling into the Terminal Tower. Stan Riddman got the Post and Daily News delivered every day. The Daily News was big on pictures, calling itself “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” It was their kind of doorstep reporting.
“Did you see the president is in Cleveland, your dad’s hometown?” Vicki asked Dottie.
“I saw it,” the girl said, flipping through the tabloid, ignoring her breakfast.
“Have you got your lunch?” asked Vicki, a Wirephoto step away from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Dottie held up it up. It was a metal Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunch box with wood grain printed sides. On the front Roy was riding away on Trigger, and Dale, in a red dress, was waving goodbye from beneath the Double RR Bar Ranch sign.
“Let’s go, hustle it up.” said Vicki.
Dottie went to the Sacred Heart of Jesus School on West 52nd Street. It was an all-children school, all boys and girls. It was the reason Stan had taken their apartment on West 56th Street, so that Dottie could walk to school. It was a large school, more than a thousand students, most of them Irish kids. A new convent for the Sisters of Charity had been built a few years ago. The Congregation of Christian Brothers, who had a reputation for strong-arm discipline, had their own residence on West 51st Street.
“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses,” Stan and Vicki heard Lenny Bruce crack at one of his shows.
Dottie didn’t wear a crucifix.
Down in Brooklyn, Bumpy Williams followed the two men who were following the boss and his Girl Friday. When they got to Ebbets Field, the men parked across the street from the main entrance to the ballpark. Bumpy passed them, doubled back, and parked a block behind them. He turned off the engine and got comfortable.
It was inside of fifteen minutes that the young man on the passenger side of the late model black panel truck got out, walked down the street, turned into a corner store, and came back with a brown bag wrapped around a bottle of Sneaky Pete.
“Dumb asses,” Bumpy said to himself.
He understood when the pie isn’t perfect, cut it into wedges, but if it was him, he would have thrown the two slices of stupidity out of the hoodlum roll call and sent them back to Sicily where they came from.
The one-year sale on fresh blood from the homeland had been going on for seven years. It was getting thin back in southern Italy. On the other hand, Bumpy thought, it isn’t like I’ve got to reinvent the wheel with them.
When Stan and Bettina walked out of the ballpark and hailed a cab, the two hoods in the panel truck didn’t follow them. Instead, the man on the passenger side got out again, sauntered to a phone booth outside the corner store, and made a call.
“All right, and you’re sure they didn’t make you?”
“And no one was on your tail?”
“All right, I’ll pass it on to the boss. You two go to the house and lay low. Stay handy, stay straight, don’t boost anything, stay out of trouble, just in case we need you, understand?”
“I got it,” the man in the telephone booth said.
The man on the other end of the line hung up.
The mobster errand boys sat in the panel truck and finished their Sneaky Pete.
When Stan and Bettina got to Brighton Beach Ezra met them.
“He’s gone,” said Ezra.
“The lady of the house says he left yesterday, with a couple of guys, had an overnight bag with him. She saw the truck, thinks it might have been black, but doesn’t know the make, much less the plates. I asked around, talked to some of the neighbors, nobody saw anything, so that’s a dead end. My guess is they’re guessing we’re on to him and have got him on ice somewhere until Wednesday.”
“That sounds about right,” said Stan. “We’ll have to snag him at the ballpark. We’ve got tickets for the game, so getting in won’t be any problem.”
“No, and we can get in early, spread out,” said Ezra.
“Are we still on the same page about keeping this to ourselves?”
“Yes,” said Ezra. “The Secret Service is always on high alert, so our ruffling their feathers won’t make any difference. Besides, they don’t trust anybody. Whatever we tell them is likely to get us in a jam.”
“I’m stirring the same pot,” said Stan.
“What if we don’t get our man and he gets too close for comfort?” Betty asked.
“We’re not anybody’s bodyguard,” said Ezra. “He’s got all the bodyguards he needs.”
“But we know who is and what he looks like,” she said. “They don’t.”
“That’s how the biscuit crumbles,” Ezra said.
They walked down to Brighton Beach Avenue.
“Did you read that tawk from Ike on Stevenson?” a man fat as a duck asked his companion as they strolled past the Duluc Detective operatives going the other way.
“Yeah, just more smoke and mirrors from the Republicans.”
“The thing is, how do you even know he’s telling the truth, when you know you’d lie about it if you was him?”
“Fawget about it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got that. Let’s stop in here.”
They were approaching a diner.
“Let’s get some cawfee and a bite.”
“That’s a good idea, I’m with you.”
“We can’t be sure we know with one hundred percent certainty what our man is up to,” said Stan.
“No,” said Ezra.
“It puts us in a bad spot.”
“Yes,” said Ezra.
“OK, we’ll play it the way we have been. It might be a squeeze, but I don’t want to get in the middle of a political assassination, if it is an assassination, and everything that would bring down on us, hell in a hand basket.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Ezra.
“We’re getting paid to find out what happened to Jackson Pollack, not anything else,” Stan said, disgruntled. “Let’s try to not get crazy derailed.”
Betty wanted to argue, but when she remembered some of the things Pete had told her, after their ping-pong games, or out for a drink, she bit her tongue. TF is what Pete always muttered when what he said fell on deaf ears. She didn’t want to be the deer in the headlights with the Feds at the wheel. She knew Pete was right about the high and low.
Two teenagers slouched past them. Both of them were wearing bright medal medallions. One of them had a girl’s ear-clip stuck onto an earlobe.
“You going to the skin battle tonight?” asked one.
“Diddley bop,” the other one said.
“You got your stenjer ready?”
He had doused his Alpine-style hat, his stenjer, under a faucet the night before, rolled the narrow brims tight, and dried it on a radiator.
“Don’t forget to pull it down over your ears.”
“Ain’t that like punking out?”
“No, it’s going to be tight fighting, but you still want to take care of your South Brooklyn Boy ears.”
“I got it.”
“You’ve got to have heart, though.”
“I’ll tell you who’s got heart, Blood’s got heart.”
“You got that right. He ain’t afraid of nobody. He will do absolutely anything. If he has to fight five against one, he’ll fight five against one. He’s a butcher, man. If you need someone to pull the trigger, he’ll pull the trigger.”
“Get that man a stenjer.”
“Fast, faster, disaster!”
They both laughed, taking their own sweet time.
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra walked in silence.
“Anybody hungry?” asked Betty.
“I’m dog hungry,” said Ezra.
“Same here,” said Stan.
“How about H & S? We could walk, it’s not far.”
They passed an apartment house. At the top of it an inscription in block letters read MOTHER JONES. Betty knew who she was, which was Mary Harris Jones, a labor organizer for the Socialist Party of America, fifty or sixty years ago. A district attorney had called her “the most dangerous woman in America.” Pete said that women couldn’t even vote in her day, which was what made them especially dangerous, pivoting into the 20th century.
“When you want something bad enough is when you get dangerous,” he said.
Stan, Betty, and Ezra strolled to the deli on Sheepshead Bay Road.
“There it is,” said Bettina, pointing to the blue and white H & S Hebrew National Deli porcelain sign across the street.
She had mushroom barley soup and toasted challah, while Ezra and Stan ordered pastrami sandwiches. Betty winced at the tongue offerings on the menu. One of them touted itself as center cut tongue, better than the other parts of the tongue. That is disgusting, she thought.
“Look at this,” said Stan. He pointed to a sign on the wall
“Instant Heart Attack,” the sign said.
It was a three-quarter pound meat sandwich, your choice of animal, with potato latkes instead of bread.
“Our food is delicious, but it can kill you,” said the waiter.
After they finished, and were having coffee, Ezra said, “I didn’t want to mention it while we were eating, but some of the deli’s I eat at, you find tidbits nowhere else. There’s a place, they have something called pitcha, which is made by cooking calves’ feet and making a big gel block of it, chilling it, with bits of meat in it.”
“That sounds like the Dark Ages,” said Betty.
“I’ve never had it,” said Ezra.
“Thank God for that!”
Outside, on the sidewalk they heard a man in the distance. He was coming their way.
“Ice cream! Get your Good Humor ice cream here, ice cream, orange drinks. Get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
He was a skinny black man wearing black shoes and khaki pants. He had two large boxes slung over his shoulders. One was filled with ice cream and the other one with orange drinks. His face was shiny.
Stan asked if he had vanilla.
“Yes sir,” the man said.
“I’ll have one, too, “said Betty.
“What other flavors do you have?” asked Ezra.
“Strawberry, chocolate, eclairs, fudge.”
“I’ll take a strawberry,” said Ezra.
When the ice cream man opened his box, white smoke from the dried ice spilled out. After they paid him, he grunted when he lifted the two boxes up, slinging them back over his shoulders, and wiped his face with a handkerchief. In the instant the boxes were up in the air, Stan saw a gravity knife taped to the underside of one of them. He knew what it was since Luftwaffe paratroopers had carried them.
Switchblades had been made illegal two years earlier, but not gravity knives. They lacked a spring, so everyone with a warehouse full of worthless switchblades took out the springs and sold them as gravity knives. That summer, after borough flatfeet got tired of being taunted by punks with gravity knives, Albany banned them, too
“Ice cream, ice cream, get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
His voice trailed off as he went down the sidewalk.
Stan Ezra Betty wiped their lips clean and went back to their business, looking for the man mouse on the loose.
There was a watery kind of light from a bare lightbulb at the top of the stairs slithering down to the basement. If it was a 25-watt bulb, it was as bright as it was ever going to get. If it was a 40-watt bulb, it wasn’t making payroll. If it was a 60-watt bulb, it was on its last legs.
Tony de Marco kept his eyes on the lion in the dimness, even though the animal was sleeping. The cat’s ears twitched. He hoped to God the beast wasn’t dreaming of ripping him apart. He sat quietly on the hard, thin mattress, as far back at the back of the bunk in the corner of the basement as he could get. It smelled bad rank horrible.
He thought one of the flame throwers he had seen in Korea would come in handy, just now, just in case, if the lion got loose, except for all the hay. There was hay in the cage, and it was strewn all over the basement floor, too. He looked closely at it. He thought it might be Timothy hay, since they used it at the ballpark. There were piles of it in the corners, and there were several bales stacked up. The basement was damp and there was a strong smell of urine.
There were no mice to be seen anywhere.
The two men who had taken him to the storefront, taken him around back, and taken him into the basement, hadn’t been rough with him, but it was clear as day as he went down the stairs that he was going into the basement, and that was that.
“The boss will be down later,” one of them said. “Just sit tight. Lucifer is locked up. Her bark is worse than her bite, anyway. She would probably lose another tooth by biting you.”
They tramped back up the stairs, he heard the lock click, and he was left alone. The lion blinked and tucked her head into her paws. She was dreaming about something. Maybe the cat was dreaming of a silky breeze. Maybe the cat was dreaming of lying low in the grass beneath a bright blue sky. Or maybe the cat was dreaming of shredding Big Paulie to ribbons and getting the hell out of the dark basement.
Anything would be better than being alone all the time in a cage in the dark, in solitary confinement.
Tony the Phil was a loner who didn’t like being alone. When he was around people, they usually made him feel even more alone, but it was better than being in a room all by himself. He didn’t like sleeping alone. It hadn’t been bad when he was in the army. He slept with the other GI’s in their fart sacks. But back home in Brighton Beach he didn’t have a girlfriend. There was no one nearby close-by at his side in bed.
He didn’t have to answer to anybody, like most of the guys he knew, but he didn’t have anybody to talk to, either.
He wasn’t good at talking, anyway. What was there to talk about? At parties, what few he went to, he always felt clumsy and lost. He never knew how to start a conversation. He didn’t know how to end one, either.
He hadn’t been good at school, but he hadn’t been lousy, either. He never had been involved in any extracurricular activities. He wasn’t any more anti-social than the next man, but he wasn’t exactly social, more queer duck than palsy-walsy.
He didn’t care about the small lives everyone led in the big city, doing the same thing every day. riding a bus, working in an office, or a store, or somebody else’s shop business making something. He didn’t care about what kids and their mothers did. Even though he worked at the ballpark, and liked his job, he wondered what in the hell everyone was hollering about. He liked baseball, but it didn’t matter to him who won or lost. He liked the Brooklyn Dodgers best, but knew that the team could be in Milwaukee, or Los Angeles, and it would be the same team, and the fans hollering it up for them would be different fans but the same fans.
When Luca Gravano came down to the basement and invited him upstairs for dinner, he was different than what Tony had imagined. He was big, but not as big as he thought he would be. He was a gangster, it was easy to tell, but he was affable and friendly. He didn’t seem dangerous. He didn’t seem notorious. He seemed to be sure of himself, sure, but that was natural.
“We’ll get you upstairs soon, Ma is laying a spread out, we can eat, you can relax, go for a walk around the neighborhood afterwards, get a good night’s sleep. We’ve got a bedroom for you. Ma made it up nice. She can bring soup up for you anytime you want.”
“I’m a little nervous,” said Tony
Something was wrong about being locked up a basement with a lion not twenty feet away, and Big Paulie, who he didn’t know from Adam, draping a beefy arm over his shoulders and giving him a warm smile.
Something was wrong. It was like Korea. It was a soup sandwich.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Big Paulie.
“Why do you have a lion here in Brooklyn? He could be dangerous if he got out.”
“It’s a lioness, he’s a she,” said Big Paulie. “Lucifer is just here to keep the rats away. Besides, she doesn’t know how to break out of her cage anymore.”
“Lucifer is a man’s name, it’s the devil’s name.”
“She’s a man-eater.”
“When can I get out of this basement? It’s clammy down here.”
“It’s just for a few hours,” said Big Paulie. “We’ll have you next door for dinner, Ma is cooking something special, and tomorrow we’ll move you a couple of blocks down the street with some of the boys. Wednesday is the big day and you’ll be setting off the fireworks. It’s going to be a special day. Nobody will ever forget you after that.”
Tony the Phil liked the sound of that. Sometimes he thought he was invisible. At work, in the neighborhood, sometimes people didn’t notice he was right there, right next to them. They didn’t see him. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like it that other people thought he didn’t matter.
It was an hour or two or three, Tony couldn’t tell, he had forgotten his watch and couldn’t make sense of the time, when Luca came back, led him up out of the basement, and into the showroom of the Murphy Bed Company. The walls were lined with pull-down beds. A poster read “The Disappearing Bed.” There were some desks and chairs on the ground floor, and an arrangement of a sofa, armchairs, and a coffee table to one side. Luca led him to a side door, they stepped across a passageway between the store and a brownstone, and through another side door.
The house was the last in a row of townhouses. It was the color of cold sauce. They went up a set of stairs to the dining room above the parlor. A heavy dark table sat eight but was set for four. The head and foot of the table weren’t set. A young man sat at the table alone. His gun was flat on the table.
“This is my kid brother Frankie.”
Tony glanced down at the gun next to Frankie’s plate. A fork and knife were on the other side of the plate. The gun was Smith & Wesson “Military” model. It had a long barrel and a blue finish. Tony had seen them in the service. Frankie was wearing a short-sleeve white shirt open at the neck. His holster was on the floor next to his chair.
“Everybody calls him Kid Blast,” said Big Paulie.
On the walls of the dining room were several photographs and paintings. There was a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and next to it a photograph of Fiorello La Guardia. There was a color photograph of Pope Pius XII. He wore a red cape, and his hands were clasped over his stomach. He was a lean man with the thin bland face of a bookkeeper.
There was a framed painting of the Bay of Naples. The water was a bright mixed-up blue. The Roman emperor Caligula, insane and sickly, had once ordered a bridge of boats assembled across the bay so he could ride over the water in a chariot wearing the armor of Alexander the Great. If he had rocked the boats, he would have sunk straight to the bottom, not being able to stand on anybody’s shoulders.
“The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to a subject-matter outside themselves. Modern painters work in a different way. They work from within,” Jackson Pollack once said, for once cold sober.
There was a framed painting of the Infant of Prague. The child was standing on a golden pedestal inscribed JHS “Jesus Savior of Mankind” wearing a red robe puffy sleeves puffy white collar a golden crown on top of golden curls and holding a golden orb, which was the globus cruciger.
“Honor this image and you shall never want” was written on a slip of paper and tucked into the bottom corner of the frame.
“The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph,” said Jackson Pollack, packed up and eighty-sixed since then. “The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world, expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces. The modern artist is working with space and time and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.”
There was a framed copy of Norman Rockwell’s “Progress?” Three boys plead with a construction crew, “Gee, mister, this is our baseball lot!” The man looking out from the seat of the digger backhoe looks bemused. The man with the shovel looks like he wants to agree with the boys.
Big Paulie looked at Tony the Phil looking at the painting.
“You like that one?” asked Luca.
“Yeah,” said Tony
“The important thing is that Clyff and Rothko and I, we’ve changed the nature of painting. I don’t mean there aren’t any other good painters. Bill is a good painter, but he’s a French painter. I told him so, the last time I saw him after his last show. all those pictures in his last show start with an image. You can see it even though he’s covered it up, or at least tried to. Style, that’s the French part of it. He has to cover it up with style,” Jackson Pollack said, done in and finally pushing up daisies.
Tony inhaled a waft of cheap after-shave. He wrinkled his nose.
“I like to stink myself up,” said Big Paulie.
The smell of homemade meatballs and spaghetti walked into the room. Raffaella Gravano carried a large platter, her arms bent at the elbow, back straight, and eyes on the table. She put the platter down. There was enough food on it to feed twice as many of them as there were.
Raffaella Gravano was a plain looking woman, short and stout, thick-set and thick-necked. Her face was small, but her eyes, nose, and chin were large, and her expression was expressionless. She had on a short-sleeved print dress cinched at the waist by a thin black belt, her breasts sagging into her stomach, her upper arms beefy, strong, an ugly scar on one of her forearms, and wearing a pair of simple sturdy comfortable black shoes.
She set the platter down on the table, brought glasses of ice and a pitcher of water, and a bottle of red wine.
“Eat, eat,” she said to Tony when he hesitated.
He didn’t have to be told twice. He was hungry. The meatballs were fresh hot delicious. They tasted like the meatballs his mother made when he was a kid, ground beef with pork, diced yellow onions and pressed fresh garlic, and made all by hand marinara sauce. The spaghetti was good. The bread was warm.
“Take that off the table, Frankie,” Raffaella said, nodding at Frankie’s gun.
“Sure, Ma,” said Kid Blast.
The men ate quietly, like wolves, not talking. Raffaella ate, too, but sitting up straight, enjoying savoring the taste of the food she had made, chewing the meatballs rather than gulping them down, drinking her wine like wine, not water.
“Is this wise?” she asked, nodding at Tony, when Big Paulie came up for air.
“It has to be, Ma,” he said.
“I understand,” she said.
Tony slowed down, winding down, finishing his plate, feeling full. There were no clocks in the room, but there was a soft dusk in the windows. He drank some of the semi-sweet wine from his glass and smiled at Ma.
“Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, from near Sorbara,” she said.
“Oh, I see,” said Tony, not seeing much of anything.
“The wine is from there. They call it that because the grape clusters look like a sausage of salami. You like it?”
“Yes, and the meatballs, too, very much,” said Tony.
Raffaella turned to her son, Kid Blast.
“Frankie, did you remember to bring that leg of lamb home like I told you?”
“Oh, fuck, Ma, I forgot.”
“Watch your language.”
“I’m sorry Ma.’”
“What are we going to do about Lucifer tonight?” she asked. “You know what she’s like when her dinner is late.”
“What about him?” asked Frankie, pointing at Tony the Phil. “He’s got two legs. He could give one up, right? He only needs one leg to stand on to do whatever it is he’s going to do, am I right?”
“You’re right,” said Big Paulie. “But he’s got to get there first, to do what he has got to do, so he needs both legs for now. Maybe he’s the sacrificial lamb, I don’t know, but the boss wants him in one piece and on time for doing the contract, you got that?”
“OK, OK, don’t get on your high horse,” complained Kid Blast. “What is the contract, anyway?”
“I don’t know, and you know better than to ask.”
After the dishes were cleared, Luca and Tony went for a walk, four blocks up and down and around the neighborhood. They walked past bars, luncheonettes, restaurants, Italian cheese stores, barber shops, dairy stores, laundry shops, cut rate luggage stores, men’s wear, women’s wear, leather repair shops, candy cigar soda stands, and the New Deal Sales Company.
They passed a butcher shop that was closed but with its lights on, the butcher wrapping up ten pounds of top round for Frankie Gravano. He waved and gave them a thumbs up when he saw them through the window, pantomiming feeding Lucifer her late dinner.
They turned the corner.
“What’s a sacrificial lamb?” asked Tony.
“You don’t want to know, kid,” said Big Paulie, grinning like the big bad wolf. “You don’t want to know.”
Even though Mr. Moto didn’t know how to think, he did a lot of thinking. There was no sense of getting on the wrong side of “I think, therefore I am.” It was a breezy sunny morning. He sat on the platform of the fire escape, looking out on Hell’s Kitchen and wondered, why is there something rather than nothing?
There was a lot of everything in New York City, as far as he could see. It was true he slept more than not, sometimes sixteen hours a day, but between sitting around in windows on stoops on the roof and prowling the land, he saw enough. Where did it all come from? Where was it all going? What was it all about?
“To be or not to be.” Where had he heard that? Was that what it was all about? Was it all just something and not nothing and never mind in between? It was the simplest explanation, and the one he liked the most, but there was something about it that nagged him. He never knew his dad, but he remembered his mom. That was where he came from. He came from her. Everything had to come from something, right?
As far as he could tell, even though he couldn’t read, there were five No. 1 concepts that philosophy revolved around, language, knowledge, truth, being, and good. He couldn’t talk, so it got shot down to four in his world. The truth was always up for grabs, leaving three. There was no need wasting time arguing what was right and wrong. He knew good and evil when he saw it.
When it came to knowledge, he knew what he knew. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” That left being, and being a cat, he was solid with that gospel truth. He was always being, no matter what he was doing. That’s what life was all about. Be true to yourself.
It was about eating, too. He was a stickler for clean water in his bowl, refreshed every day. He got cross if it was stale. Stan gave him canned fish in the morning, he ate all of it every day, and the rest of the day nibbled on dry food.
Mr. Moto didn’t like “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was full of bull. If what he said was true, most life of all kinds wasn’t worth living. Who had the time to look inward all the time?
He never examined his own life. He didn’t know a single other cat, nor had he ever heard of any, who did. He didn’t believe animals ever did. He didn’t think many people did, either, at least not in his neck of the woods. Who was Socrates to say their lives weren’t worth living? No wonder they poisoned him when they got the chance. He must have been a pain in the ass.
Mr. Moto flopped down on the ground, stuck a hind leg up, and cleaned his butt.
He didn’t like Kant, either. The man could never just come out and say what he meant. “A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to any other purpose.” What did that even mean? If it meant what he though it meant, it was all hot air. One thing always led to another. He knew that for sure.
He thought it might mean something like, it is never right to lie. Should that idea be universally applied? If everybody lied, trust would disappear, so lying is wrong in all cases. What a lot of more bull! Kant was worse than Socrates. Mr. Moto distrusted almost everybody, and it stood him in good stead. He was willing and able to lie to anybody he didn’t trust. Whatever works was his motto.
His chief goal was survival. “We must all cultivate our own wisdom.” Voltaire was more like it, more to his liking.
He was taking the air on the fire escape, the wrought iron stairs bolted to the front of the building. It was where he did his best thinking. It was also where he stayed abreast of the street’s comings and goings. The World Series, whatever that was, was on everybody’s lips. Everybody was saying it was the Subway Series. It was starting tomorrow. He heard Dottie saying she was going to be on the picture box, talking to one of the big men, although he was a small man, somebody by the name of Pee Wee Reese. Somebody sitting on the stoop next door was reading Sports Illustrated. Micky Mantle was on the cover.
When he looked down at the sunlit pavement, watching Dottie come out the front door and start off to school, he didn’t like what he saw. A black 1955 Chevrolet panel truck was parked at the curb. Two men in dark suits, wearing fedoras pulled down over their eyes, were getting out of the truck. They weren’t in the trades, that was for sure. They were guinea gangsters.
When they blocked Dottie’s way and reached for her, clamping a sweet-smelling wet handkerchief over her mouth, Mr. Moto ears pinned back sprang into action and raced down the steps of the fire escape. He whirled on the sidewalk and ran straight at the struggle. Dottie was kicking furiously at the men. Leaping from the second story he jumped over the back of the man holding her from behind, over Dottie’s head, and on to the face of the man facing him. The man screamed as Mr. Moto raked his face with his claws.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Sports Illustrated on the stoop yelled, standing up.
The hoodlum grabbed at the cat, got hold and flung him away. Blood gushed from his face and one eye. Mr. Moto pivoted and went at him again, coming up short landing on his chest, and grabbed with all his claws digging in at the man’s shirt. The goon flung him off again, bellowing. The cat landed on all fours and glared.
Dottie went limp from the chloroform on the kerchief and the men dragged her to the back of the panel truck, tossing her inside, and slamming the doors shut. An empty bottle of Sneaky Pete rolled into the gutter. Mr. Moto went after them again but had to dodge bullets from the soon-to-be-Scarface, and dashed behind a trash can, more bullets ripping through the thin metal and ricocheting off concrete.
The man on the stoop threw himself flat, cradling his head with his arms.
When the truck started pulling away, heads appearing in windows, and shouts that it was gunfire, not backfire, he ran after it. When he jumped at one of the rear wheels, hoping to puncture it, all he got for his efforts was two ripped-out claws and bruised ribs when he was flung off the spinning steelbelt to the curb.
He looked up at the disappearing truck and instantly memorized the license plate number. Back on the sidewalk he pulled a scrap of paper from the overturned trash can and wrote the letters and numbers on it in his own blood. Even though he didn’t know how to write, he could recreate symbols. He didn’t know what the symbols meant, but they had to mean something. Stan would know.
He heard a whistle. A patrolman was running up the sidewalk. A woman yelled out her window, “They grabbed the Riddman girl!”
“I don’t know, two guys were dragging her. She looked like she was knocked out. They threw her into their truck and raced away.”
“Did you see their faces?”
“How about the plates?”
“Which way did they go?”
It wasn’t any better sledding with anybody else. Everybody had seen what happened, but nobody knew what the trail looked like. The patrolman wrote down what he heard and waited for the plainclothes car.
On the sidewalk Mr. Moto felt bad. If he wanted to be honest with himself, he felt horrible. He had stanched the bleeding by licking his paw, but he was having a hard time breathing. His chest hurt like hell. When he tried to walk, he felt like he had strained a tendon or a ligament or some damned thing in his right back leg. He knew what he was made of. He was a mess. He limped when he got going. There wasn’t any way he was going to be able to scurry up the wood trim to the awning to the second-floor platform and back to the open window of the apartment. He waited at the front door until the woman in 1A came running out, slipped into the foyer, and through the quietly closing inner door.
He dragged himself up to the fourth floor, to the hallway window, and gingerly hopped up on the sill. He went out to the fire escape and back into the apartment through the living room window.
The apartment was a living room dining room kitchen and two bedrooms. He went to his water bowl first, caught his breath, and lapped up enough to slake his dry mouth. He staggered to Dottie’s room, stopping inside the door to catch his breath again. His chest hurt bad. He clawed his way up onto the bed, let the scrap of paper fall from his mouth, and lay there until his wheezing tapered off.
He fell into a dreamless one life gone sleep.
“For you,” said Bettina, frowning, putting her hand over the handset. “He said it was about Dottie and you would want to talk to him.”
“I don’t think so, didn’t say, doesn’t sound like it.”
“Young or old?”
Stan glanced at his watch and noted the time. “Listen in Betty.” He waited a second and picked up his receiver.
“This is Stan Riddman,” he said cold flat indifferent.
“We’ve got the girl,” the voice on the other end said.
“Why do you want her?”
“We want you to take the cure for the next couple of days, put everything on hold, don’t do nothing about nothing. You do that you get your girl back. You don’t do that you don’t ever see her again.”
“Where is she?”
The phone went dead.
“Somebody’s got Dottie.”
“I heard. Why? What we’re doing?”
“They didn’t say, not exactly. They want me to sit on my hands for a few days, don’t do anything, and I’ll get her back. Or else. It’s got to be the small man. Nothing else is going on except the Jackson Pollack business. Goddamn it!”
“What are you going to do?”
Stan stood up and went into the utility room. He spun the combination on the office safe and removed two handguns. They were Colt Commander models, aluminum framed, with a short barrel and rounded hammers. The plastic grips were brown. The guns were unloaded. He put four 7-round magazines in his pockets. He reached into the safe a second time.
“Get hold of Ezra, tell him what’s going on, that I’ve got our .45’s, and to meet me at the house. If I’m not there, I’ll be talking to the neighbors, tell him to find me, the sooner the better.”
“Here,” he said, handing Betty a snub-nosed .32 and six rounds. “Shoot first, never mind the questions.”
She didn’t ask if she should call the police. She knew better than that. This had nothing to do with them, even though they would probably have to clean up the consequences afterwards.
“Somebody’s a dead man,” Stan said.
There were two beat cops, a radio car, and a plainclothes car on the street when Stan’s taxi eased up to his walk-up.
“We don’t know much,” one of the dicks said. “Lots of people saw it happen, but nobody saw anything useful, except that there were two of them and they drove a black panel truck.”
“Thanks,” Stan said, and walked up to the apartment. It was neat and clean, the windows open, fresh autumn air cooling the rooms. He walked into Dottie’s room and saw Mr. Moto lying in a heap on the bed. There was blood on the bedspread. The cat lifted his head and Stan saw the blood was from his paw. When he touched the cat, he hissed. Stan could see his breathing was wheezy fast. Then he saw the scrap of paper and the letters and numbers scrawled in it. When he picked it up, he knew Mr. Moto had scratched out the message with his paw and it was the license plate number of the black truck.
Stan got a bowl of milk and crumbled up a chunk of tuna, put it in the milk, and placed the bowl on the bed.
“Ezra and I will take it from here,” he said to Mr. Moto. “You stay here and take care of yourself.”
The cat eased himself over to the bowl and lapped up the milk, nibbled at the tuna, and went back to sleep, curling up into a ball.
By the time Ezra came through the front door, Stan had the address the truck was registered to and was sitting in an armchair waiting for him. They talked it over for a minute and five minutes later were in a cab. Stan gave the cabbie an address in Gravesend three blocks away from where they were going.
It was a single-family house that had been converted into a two-family house. There were unkempt bushes on both sides of the concrete front porch. The only anything in the drive was a black panel truck. There were closed blinds in every window.
“I make them on the ground floor, in case they have to leave quick,” Ezra said. “If they were upstairs, they might get stuck.”
“You take the back door,” Stan said. “I’ll go in through the front. The doors will be locked, maybe chained. When you hear me shoot into the lock, you do the same, kick out the chain, go head over heels.”
The two men, one of them his face gauzed and red slathered in iodine, barely had time to lunge up from the card table they were sitting at, reaching for their guns, when Stan and Ezra stopped them breakneck.
“Throw the heat on the floor in front of you and kick slide them to me.”
The men did as they were told. One of the guns was an Orbea Hermanos, a Spanish handgun, a Smith & Wesson copycat. It was a piece of junk. The other one was a real Smith & Wesson Centennial. Stan kicked the Orbea under the sofa. He picked up the Centennial, opened the cylinder, saw it was loaded, put his own gun away, and trained the Smith & Wesson on the men.
“Both of you on your knees, hands behind your backs,” Stan said. “Where is she?”
“Who the fuck is where fuckface” iodine face asked.
Stan whirled and shot him twice in the chest, the two shots following so fast upon the other it sounded like one gunshot. The man toppled over backward, surprised astonished the sneer still on his lips, three of four seconds from dying, which he did when he hit the floor, a puddle of blood forming under him, the two holes in his chest slowly steadily leaking
“Jesus Christ!” the other man blurted, jumping to his feet, crazy to run, a stain forming at his crotch.
Ezra clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of his Colt .45 and the man went down moaning, still conscious, with a concussion in the making.
“I said, where is she?”
Stan jerked the moaning man’s head up by a handful of slicked-back hair. He held tight, shaking the man’s head, tearing out a tuft of greasy hair. Red and brown spittle ran down the man’s chin. His eyes started to focus.
“Last time, or you join your friend,” Stan said.
“Not my friend,” he mumbled.
“I’m not asking for explanations. Where is she?”
“At Luca’s place.”
“What place is that?”
“The house, next to the mattress shop.”
“I don’t know the address.”
“Let’s go, you can show us.”
“Luca will kill me if he sees me.”
“You’ve got the brain of a crayon. You’re halfway to the boneyard right now.”
“My head hurts bad.”
Stan wiped the handle of the Smith & Wesson clean and threw it to the side.
“Where are the keys?”
Ezra felt for the keys with the toe of his shoe probing the dead man’s pockets.
“I’ve got them,” he said.
Ezra drove the panel truck, the hoodlum in the passenger seat, and Stan crouching behind the passenger seat, the barrel of his Commander pressing into the back of the man’s neck. The man was tied up at the wrists and ankles.
“Slow down and don’t slam into any potholes,” Stan said to Ezra.
“Business is booming,” Mario Pugo at Always Tire Service on Atlantic Avenue always said. “The roads are good for my business but they’re bad for my customers. I repair blown tires and bent rims daily. One customer, he picked up his repaired car and drove straight into another pothole. He was back in five minutes.”
“You know how this gun is, loose as a goose. It could go off any second.”
The man in the passenger seat stiffened. The truck hit a pothole and shuddered. Stan kept a grip on the man, his hand tight on his shoulder. The Colt .45 stayed quiet. The man told them the store was a front, there was a lion in the basement, a steel door at the side led into the house, the brothers might or might not be there, but the mother was always there.
“She’s more them than all of them,” he said.
When Ezra drove past the Murphy Bed store across the street, up tight against a three-story brick house, Stan threw it a glance. Ezra shifted into third, turned the corner, and found an alley. He parked and Stan dragged the bad man into the back of the truck, found a pile of oily rags, stuffed one into the man’s mouth, gagged him to make sure, blindfolded him, and tied two rags together to tie him tight to a u-bolt.
“He might have trouble breathing,” Ezra said.
“That’s not my problem,” Stan said.
Going towards the door of the store Stan and Ezra had their handguns in their hands their arms down at their sides. They moved slowly, but once they stepped across the threshold, they moved fast. Ezra flipped the open sign the other way, stayed at the door, his back to it, and Stan strode straight to the only man in the store, sitting behind a desk at the back of the store.
He was a big man. It was Big Paulie.
“Don’t,” Stan said. “I won’t stand for it.”
Big Paulie eased the top drawer he had been sliding open back closed.
“Get up, come around to the front of the desk, rest your ass on it, and talk to me like I’m looking for a better night’s sleep.”
“The big sleep is what you’ll be getting,” Luca hissed.
“Shut up. I would just as soon finish you and walk away, but I want my girl back. Where is she?”
“You don’t know what you’re getting mixed up in.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. I want my girl. Where is she?”
When Kid Blast came through the side door briskly confident smug, he saw the two guns first, then the two men, and could have killed himself for not bringing a gun with him. He could have killed himself for not whirling and running, although that would have gotten him killed.
“Next to the fat man, junior,” Ezra said. “Same rules.”
Kid Blast joined Big Paulie, the young man’s face twisted, hate in the front of his eyes. There was a roar behind the back door, underneath them, followed by a loud yawn. It was Big Paulie’s lion, the beast he kept in the basement to preserve order in his world. Nobody moved, nobody looked anywhere else but where they had been looking. Stan took a few steps back, the better to train his sidearm on both gangsters.
“Check the cat out,” he said. “Be careful.”
Ezra opened the back door gently and immediately stepped back, forced back by the rancid smell. He flipped the light switch and looked into the gloom, trying not to breath too much. There was hay all over, a large cage, and a skinny-looking tired-looking sad-looking lion in the cage.
“She doesn’t look like much, like she needs a few square meals and some fresh air. They’ve got a wire contraption beside the light switch, so they can open and close the cage from up here.”
Stan stepped up to Kid Blast and hit him hard in the face with the butt of his Colt. It broke the young man’s jaw, some teeth, and laid him flat. Stan grabbed him by the scruff and threw him down the stairs. He sprang the cage door open and slammed the basement door shut, locking it with the skeleton key that was in the lock.
“Last time big man or you’re next. Where’s my girl?”
“Upstairs,” said Big Paulie.
Stan didn’t bother asking if anybody else was in the house.
“Sit back down, hands on the desk,” Ezra said, seating himself at a table to the side, his gun nonchalant in his lap. “I don’t like what you did to me, so don’t tempt me with any monkey business.”
Stan stepped into the house, up three steps, and into a dining room. To his left was a kitchen, to his right a living room, foyer, and stairs leading to the second floor. He knew the mother was in the house, maybe some more of her sons, and for sure somebody keeping the clamps on Dottie. He went up the stairs soundlessly. He smelled garlic seeping out from under one of the bedroom doors. A brown house spider made his way up the edge of the door frame. He watched the spider until it stopped. They both waited.
Stan took a step, took a deep breath, and burst into the room.
A middle-aged woman in a black apron was feeding soup to Dottie, whose hands were free, but not free enough to throw hot soup in anybody’s face. The hand on the spoon was Raffaella Gravano’s hand. The gunman was Italian, like the woman, but not one of the sons. He had the face of a ferret, not the face of the family. He was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and the instant he saw Stan he grabbed Dottie. The bowl of soup tipped and spilled all over the mattress. He lunged to his feet, Dottie held in front of him, a gun at her temple.
“Drop the piece or the girl dies.”
Stan lifted his gun, sighting it.
“Put the gun down, or you go down.”
“No, I’ve got the upper hand, you lay your hand down.”
The stand-off lasted another second before Stan fed the facts of life to the man.
“You’ve got a losing hand. I can make another girl, but nobody is ever making another one of you,” Stan said, his firearm pointed at the man’s forehead. The only way you stay alive is the girl and I walk away together.”
“Is that some kind of weird joke?”
When Stan shot and the bullet zipped fast whooshing past the man’s face so close he could feel the heat of it smell the burnt powder, and slammed into the plaster wall, everyone in the room stopped hearing anything the next instant except the echo of the boom. The gunman didn’t blink. He kept his head, but his hand gripped tense sweaty on the gun handle.
“And you,” Stan said to the woman, “sit down on the bed, don’t move.” She sat down. “Turn so I can see your hands.” She turned slightly, her hands in her lap.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop thinking it.”
He jabbed his eyes back at the man.
“Make up your mind.”
The man hesitated.
“Never get into a card game with the devil,” Stan said. “He will always deal you a bad hand.”
The man wavered, but lowered his gun, Dottie ran to Stan, grabbing at him, crying.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, taking a kid for a hostage,” he said to Rafaella Gravano. “Tear that bed sheet into strips.”
They waited while the woman did what she was told.
“Stand outside the door, honey,” he said to Dottie prying her off of him. He hog-tied the gunman and Ma Gravano. He kicked the gunman as hard as he could, breaking three ribs. He spat on the floor an inch away from Ma Gravano’s face. He left them on the ground, slamming the door behind him.
Down the stairs and through the house, keeping his daughter behind him, when he and Dottie stepped past the open steel door into the mattress shop, Ezra was alone.
“When I asked the big man who it was that we threw down into the basement, he said it was his younger brother. I thought he wouldn’t mind being his brother’s keeper, so I sent him down to join the family. The cat is harmless, anyway. It’s missing most of its teeth.”
They left the store by the front door, shutting the lights off, walked to the alley, and rolled the tied-up man out the back door of the panel truck. Ezra found a scrap of paper in the glove box. He wrote “I KIDNAP CHILDREN” on the paper and thumb-tacked it to the man’s chest. When they drove away a mongrel dog trotted up and sniffed at him. When they spotted another alley, they abandoned the truck, wiping it clean, and hailed a cab on the street.
Dottie curled up in Stan’s warm embrace, Ezra fast on her other side.
“How did you find me so fast?”
“Mr. Moto got the license plate number of the guys who grabbed you, and the rest was easy enough, once we knew where to go to find you.”
“I saw him try to get at them, but it was two against one, and then they were shooting at him, and I was being gassed, and that’s all I remember. I woke up in that bed and the old lady came in with soup and then there you were. Dad, dad, I’m so glad, so happy you found me,” she said, squeezing him tight, crying again, a flood of tears.
Stan let her cry, stroking her hair.
When they got back to Hell’s Kitchen, wending up to the apartment, Dottie ran into her bedroom, and threw herself on her bed next to Mr. Moto. She reached for him. Startled, the cat jumped to the floor, looked at the girl, arched his back, yawned, and walked out of the room his tail held high.
“Where is everybody?” Carnellia asked herself.
Nobody was in the house, nobody was in the store, nobody was nowhere. After a day and night of persuading herself to visit, there wasn’t anybody at home. She grew up in the brownstone. That never happened. Somebody was always there. There were some family secrets that had to stay under lock and key and the watchful eye.
“Ma are you here?” she called out again.
No answer again, even though the kitchen felt and smelled warm. The house felt like somebody was somewhere, but it was quiet like an open book somebody had laid down..
She heard a thump. She stopped and listened. When she heard another thump, she walked up the stairs, checking the bedrooms. When she went into her old bedroom, she saw her mother, hog-tied on the ground, thumping the floor with her blocky black shoes.
“Ma! What happened?”
She worked at the knots, not getting anywhere, then ran down to the kitchen, grabbed a cook’s knife, and ran back upstairs. She sliced through the cotton fabric freeing her mother hands and feet.
“It was your brother. Where is he?”
“Luca tied you up?”
“No, no, but it was his doing.”
“Who is this?” Carnellia asked, pointing to the man moaning on the floor.
Raffaella stepped over and kicked him. He cried out, his broken ribs a sudden sharp pain.
“That’s for not shooting that son of a bitch when you had the chance.”
She kicked him again, hard.
“And that’s for me being tied up in my own home.”
“What’s going on? What son of a bitch? What innocent girl?”
“That man must have done something to him and Frankie,” Raffaella said, leaving the room.
“What about him?”
“Leave him,” she said, stamping down the stairs.
They both heard the banging on the basement door as soon as they stepped into the bed store. Carnellia turned the lights on.
“Who’s in there?” Raffaella demanded
“Ma, it’s me and Frankie. Unlock the door.”
“Your sister is here.”
“Tell her to leave and when she’s gone unlock the door,” Big Paulie said.
“You won’t talk to your own sister?”
“You know how I feel about that ma.”
‘Then you and Frankie can stay down there in the dark.”
“Ma, ma,” yelled Frankie. “It’s Luca, not me, he hates her. I love Carnellia, let me out of here.”
“You and Luca think things over. I’ll come back later tonight.”
She made sure the store was locked up tight and the lights off, secured the metal door, and the two women went back into the house.
“What’s going on?” Carnellia asked her mother when they were sitting at the kitchen table, having coffee and biscotti.
“Your big brother is doing something for Albert, something big, and part of it was kidnapping a little girl. He brought her here, the fool, and asked me to watch her. He left a man, the one who’s tied up, and I was feeding her soup when what I think is her father busted in. Our man had the girl, a bullet at her head, but the father said he didn’t care, he could make another daughter, but if he shot her, he was a dead man the next instant, and nobody was going to make another one of him ever again.”
“Her father said that?”
“Yes, and he said he’d shoot him some more when he was dead, so the devil wouldn’t have any doubt he was getting the right man.”
“What kind of a man would say something like that about his own child?”
“A heartless man,” said Raffaella. “But the girl didn’t seem to take it the wrong way, she just stood there, until Luca’s stupid man got the shakes and put his gun down. If your father was only here.”
Luigi Gravano never got the shakes. Raffaella and her husband didn’t come to the United States at the turn of the century, when most of the Italians in New York City showed up. They weren’t birds of passage, either, planning on working hard, saving every penny, and going back home, re-establishing themselves with some land and a better house and a wad under the mattress. Luigi Gravano didn’t work in construction building roads bridges subways and sewers. Raffaella didn’t work as a seamstress They didn’t peddle bread in the street. They made it on the make.
After the war times were tough in the south of Italy. All the industry was up north. There were few jobs and few prospects. The dockyard owners on the east coast encouraged immigration, one way or the other. They got their labor cheap and tied it up until the working men could repay the passage. After that many of them stayed on the docks. It was all they knew.
Luigi worked the docks where plenty of young Italian men worked informally illegally as longshoremen at the city’s coastal ports. He helped them get work, for a cut, and helped steal freight, for a cut. When their boys grew up, they got into the trade with their old man. When Luigi was shot and killed fighting over a bone of contention, Luca became the family point man. Frankie stayed the loose cannon. The other boys didn’t give lip and there wasn’t a peep from Carnellia, at least until she grew up.
Luca “Big Paulie” Gravano knew a good thing when he saw one.
“What is Albert up to?”
“I don’t know, Luca didn’t say, not exactly. It has something to do with the World Series. Somebody is going to get killed, but why they would do it in such a public place, I don’t know. I have a bad feeling about it. The little girl gave me the evil eye. That was bad. And her father, if looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I don’t like it happening in our house. Your father would never have stood for it. What happened out there stayed out there. It never came in here.”
She never stopped missing her husband. He four sons were standing on the shoulders of a giant. Luigi always knew in a minute what they spent days figuring out, if they figured it out, at all.
“Stay for a little dinner,” she said.
“All right, ma, I will.”
Although many people in New York City went to their kitchens to feed the cat and dog, that was about all the cooking they knew or did. Raffaello Gravano wasn’t like that. She had fed the family starting with Luigi, then Luca, then the rest of the four kids. She still fed the boys every day, unless they had gone to the mattresses.
She got a big pot, poured water into it, and put it on the stove. She believed in having a big enough pot so the pasta could roll around in the water while cooking. She made her own spaghetti.
Earlier in the month the papers had reported about factory made pizza. “In New Jersey a belt-line assembles pizza as if they were General Motors tanks. Dough shell goes on the line, plop goes cheese, squirt goes tomato sauce, shake goes oregano, plastic wrapper enfolds, label stamps, boxed, next.”
Raffaella made her own pizza and never bought pizza from Nino Food Products in Newark, New Jersey, or anywhere else. She suspected there wasn’t anybody named Nino. She was sure there was a company called Food Products, although she didn’t care. She didn’t buy unassembled pizza either, the kind that was a fill up package containing the flour mixture, yeast, and sauce with cheese in an envelope.
She made her own from scratch, made the sauce, rolled out the pie, grated the cheese, and sliced the pepperoni. Sometimes she added pesto and pistachios. She had tried mac and cheese on pizza, but it was too much.
When Kraft introduced their mac and cheese in a box twenty years earlier, she fed it to the kids every day. It was quick and easy and fed four for twenty cents. But after fifty or sixty dinners in a row the children started to protest, and when Luigi took their side, she put her apron back on.
“How is everything in the village?” Raffaella asked her daughter.
“Good, ma, I like it a lot. There’s some great home-style eating there.”
“Nothing is home-style outside of my home.”
Raffaella had not seen the Look Magazine article with pictures showing how to eat pizza correctly. “Pizza pie has become an American citizen, here to stay,” the story said. If she had seen the article she would have said, “I’m an American citizen and I been staying here for more than thirty years.”
While she waited for the water to boil, she got the oven lit. She picked up one of the two old loaves of bread from the counter and started tearing cubes out of it by hand. She tore them all the same so the croutons would cook evenly. She tossed them into a bowl as she went and when it was full drizzled the chunks with olive oil and tossed it. She spread the croutons in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them into the oven They would need flipping over halfway through the baking and watching for the crispiness. She didn’t like her croutons to get too brown.
“Are you still living alone?”
“Yes, mother, I’ll let you know when the big day shows up.”
“Don’t get smart-alecky with me.”
“Sorry, ma, but you know I still live alone on 8th, all alone.”
“Do you ever see the diamond man?”
“Oh, yeah, not every day, but we run into each other all the time.”
Carnellia lived in a 3rd floor apartment next to Sam Kramer’s jewelry shop. “I was even one of his Space Girls this summer, filling in for a girl who got sick.”
“He hires out pretty girls, dresses them all in black, with a cape and a helmet that looks like a space helmet, hangs his jewelry around their necks, and they ride around town on a scooter showing it off.”
Sam Kramer worked with silver and gold and gems. He made a good living and paid his rent. He and his wife and their two children lived upstairs. He was best known, though, for making jewelry out of glass eyes, moose teeth, porcupine quills, old shoe buttons, and pieces of quartz. When he got inspired, he added rare hardwoods, ancient coins, and fossilized sea insects.
He got written up the year before. Some museums and university art galleries started exhibiting his work. When a friend of his took a finger ring he made to a museum curator, and asked if it were “Egyptian or Etruscan,” the curator said, “Unquestionably Etruscan.”
“Don’t go fast on those things,” Rafaella said. “You’ll kill yourself falling off. Then they’ll steal the scooter, and you’ll have to take the subway home. The trains are dirty and there are dirty men on them.”
Carnellia didn’t tell her mother about going barefoot in Washington Square, listening to Ramlin’ Jack Elliott there, drinking cheap wine on the sly in the daytime listening to him trying out his new songs.
“Well, I fills up my hat brim, drunk a sweet taste, thought about the river going to waste, thought about the dust, thought ’bout the sand, thought about the people, thought ’bout the land, ever’body running round all over creation, just looking for some kind of a little place,” he sang.
While the pasta was cooking Rafaella sauteed garlic and onion in a pan, browned a small portion of beef, gave it all a good stir, and let it simmer. She brought a bottle of Chianti Spolveri snuggled in straw to the table and poured half a water glass for herself and half that for her daughter.
“Ma, I’m not a little girl anymore,” Carnellia said and topped off her glass.
“If you’re so grown up what are you doing living with riff raff and beatniks?”
She wasn’t ready to talk back to her mother, but she thought it was nutty when a crime boss mother looked on bohemians as beneath her.
“Have dinner ready, prepare yourself, prepare the children, minimize all noise, be happy to see him, listen to him, make the evening his,” is what Carnellia had read in the “Home Economics High School Textbook” when she was in high school. Keep the house, make the meals, do the dishes and laundry, take care of the kids, and stay gay and gorgeous on top of it. She wasn’t going to have it, not if she could help it. She wanted to stay Carnellia Gravano, and in the meantime find out who she wanted to be, not who everybody else was.
Even Grace Kelly when she got married six months ago all of a sudden became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. The Kelly part of her went out the window, even though her family paid two million in dowry to the Prince of Monaco.
It didn’t surprise the Gravano family, since they knew in a hearsay way the prince’s mother was romantically involved with the jewel thief Rene the Cane. The “Wedding of the Century” already looked pregnant. Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi had made short work of it.
Carnellia wasn’t willing to face high noon at the altar.
“Have you made any plans besides going to school part-time and working part-time and whatever else you do part-time? You’re going to turn into an old maid before you know it.”
“I’m not getting married this minute, ma, and that’s final.”
Getting married and having children was the number one to-do list for girls. The marriage rate was at an all-time high. Everybody either already had kids or were busy making kids. The family was what made Americans better than Commies, whose mothers all worked in tractor factories while their children spent the day in concrete bunker day cares. Home and hearth were what mattered.
They ate their Spaghetti Bolognese and drank Chianti and talked about yesterday and the day before. Robert Wagner the city’s mayor was on the cover of Time Magazine. Robert Moses had gotten the cops to push six women away from a project of his near Central Park West. They insisted the play space was needed by their children. The International Longshoremen were threating to go out on strike since their contract had expired on Sunday. Jacob Javits, the Attorney General, was making noises that a walkout might imperil the national safety and health.
“Hah!” barked Ma Gravano.
Lucy and Desi were in town to promote the sixth season of “I Love Lucy.” In a comedy sketch on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Lucy pretended to believe she and Desi would be appearing on Edward Murrow’s “Person to Person” instead of The Great Stone Face Show. The next day Little Ricky made his debut. He was a smash.
“What about Luca and Frankie?” asked Carnellia after dinner, stacking the dishes in the sink, making ready to go home to Greenwich Village.
Raffaella picked up the second loaf of stale bread and poured a pitcher of water. “Bring two glasses and a bowl.” They walked into the bed store and across to the basement door. Raffaella unlocked it and put the bread and water down on the narrow landing.
“Here’s your supper,” she said looking down on her two sons at the bottom of the stairs. “I’ll be back tomorrow, maybe I’ll bring some antipasto and fresh bread, and maybe I will let you out on Thursday morning when this is all over. And keep that lion quiet. If I get another bad night’s sleep, I swear I won’t be back.”
She turned the lock on her two bad boys and took to an early bed.
“No guns?” Ezra asked.
“No guns.” Stan said.
“There are going to be more than a mob in blue at the ball field today and plenty more in plainclothes. The Secret Service isn’t going to want anyone with a gun within a mile of Ike, so only Bumpy is going strapped.”
“Him? He was on the wrong side until a few days ago.”
Stan was sitting at his desk, Ezra, Betty, and Bumpy haphazard alert around the desk. It was 7:30 in the morning. A new moon had lit the clear sky Tuesday night. It was in the 50s at dawn, but not damp. The chill was slowly inching its way up into the low 70s, patches of thin-lipped clouds blinking in the sunny sky
“He’s going with Dottie. He’ll say he’s a neighbor, or whatever he wants to say. He shouldn’t have a problem.”
“The cops hate coons but he’s not going to have a problem?”
“No, because for one thing, he’s going to be Bojangles stepping out with Shirley Temple, and for another reason, Negroes shoot each other, not presidents.”
“What if they spot it?” Bumpy asked.
Hung out to dry, Bumpy thought.
Frankie Lane was belting out “Hell Hath No Fury,” William Brinkley’s “Don’t Go Near the Water” was topping the best-seller charts, and on TV everybody was watching “The Adventures of Hiram Holliday.” The adventure at Ebbets Field was the first game of the World Series. Bumpy knew he wouldn’t have a problem getting in, going heavy or not heavy. Negroes were invisible most of the time, anyway.
It was going to be a full house, 34-some thousand hooting and hollering. Dwight Eisenhower was throwing out the first pitch, Whitey “Slick” Ford was pitching for the Yankees. Sal “The Barber” Maglie was pitching for the Dodgers.
If you crowded the plate, Sal Maglie was going to mow you down. He wasn’t going to let anybody get a quick swing and rip anything down the line. His infielders guarding the lines were good with The Barber’s methods. They could play a step off.
Whitey Ford wasn’t going to mow anybody down, but he was more than capable of retiring the side. He wasn’t overpowering. He was shifty crafty. He threw different spins speeds swerves and altered his arm motions, putting the ball where he wanted to.
“If it takes 27 outs to win, who’s going to get them out more ways than Whitey?” Casey Stengel asked. “Nobody.”
He got them out in more ways than one. He doctored the ball by mixing spit and dirt in his palms. He rubbed resin, baby oil, and turpentine on his hands to make his fingers sticky. He used a ring with a secret rasp to cut the ball, making it dip and break at the last second.
Wally Dropo, the Boston Red Sox infielder who beat Whitey Ford out for Rookie of the Year in 1950, said, “Right away, I could see this guy was going to be trouble. He was like a chess player who used his brain to take the bat right out of my hands. You’d start thinking along with him, and then Whitey had you because he never started you off with the same pitch in any one sequence.”
“Swing and a miss, strike three, you’re out!” called the home plate umpire, jerking his thumb up and over his shoulder, over and over again.
“Stay with Dottie this morning, she likes waffles, make sure nobody is shadowing you, and take a cab to Brooklyn,” Stan said.
“I’ll find a car,” Bumpy said.
“Jesus, no, Dottie’s got her heart set on meeting Pee Wee,” said Stan. “All she needs is you getting flagged.”
“I don’t get flagged.”
“All right, but this once, take a cab.”
“Sho’ enough, boss.”
Betty laughed. “That almost sounds real.”
“I stay in practice,” Bumpy said.
He took a handful of petty cash from the petty cash box and went out. Stan, Ezra, and Betty locked the office up and went to breakfast. On the street they had to wait while Betty ran back upstairs to put her .32 back in the safe.
They crossed Tenth Avenue and walked to Ninth Avenue, then walked down it. They walked past a butcher shop selling Chicken Legs and Breast, Sausages Italian Style, and Smoked Butts. Disemboweled small game hung in the windows. They walked past kids playing in front of tenements when they should have been in school. A dog came begging, but they ignored the creature.
They stepped into Mickeys’ Candy Store and Luncheonette, a greasy spoon at 44th Street and Ninth. Inside the door was a rack of DC comics. A step behind them were old issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland. They sat down on floor-mounted stools at a worn-out counter and ordered coffee. There was an all-day all-night breakfast menu. They had fried scrambled poached eggs ham bacon sausage and sweet rolls with more coffee.
“That was good. It’s going to be a long day,” Stan said. He lit a cigarette.
Ezra loosened his belt. He lit a cigarette, too. Betty kept eating. When she was nervous, she had an appetite from the bowels of hell, although she never gained weight.
“What’s the plan?” asked Ezra.
“You and I go into the ballpark and prowl around, hoping we catch sight of the little wop. Betty roams around the outside, and if she spots him, she calls in to us,” Stan said. He pulled two black gadgets out of a paper bag. He gave one to Ezra and one to Betty. They were Buck Rogers Remco walkie-talkies.
“This is a toy,” Ezra said. “You need a string to connect the two to talk.”
“Otis fixed them up,” said Stan. “They’re good for about three hundred yards. He used the guts of a phone and added that switch to send and receive. Keep it switched on once we get started. The circuit will stay open and we can talk as long as the battery holds out. Otis thinks it should last half a day.”
“Did you test them?”
“Yeah, he and I tested them at three hundred yards. They worked, the sound was good, but at four hundred yards they clammed up. We backed up half of the hundred and they worked again, more-or-less, but there was static.”
“What do we do if we find our man?”
“We beat some sense into him, if we have to, otherwise we quiet him down so we can watch the game, and afterwards play it by ear.”
“Do we turn him over?” asked Betty.
“We turn him upside down so he spills his guts, but not to any law enforcement until we find out what it’s all about, and even then, we’ll talk it over afterwards, before we do anything that might cause us trouble. The less attention we draw to ourselves the better. We’re skating on thin ice. I don’t want any Feds breathing down my neck. They’ve always got to solve whatever they get their teeth into, like a pit bull who won’t let go, and then there’s their damned lawyers, and they never shut up.”
“That was a mouthful,” Betty said, wiping butter and crumbs off her lips.
“I don’t like lawyers near me,” said Stan.
“It’s getting on to ten-thirty,” said Ezra. “What do you say we get going Brooklyn-wise?”
Stan paid the bill, they went out to the street corner, and Betty whistled down an empty five-passenger Checker. They slid into the rear seat. Betty and Stan rolled down their windows.
“How did I get stuck in the middle?” Ezra complained.
“Klieg, klieg, klieg, du bist a nar,” Betty said while Ezra sulked.
“Run us down the new parkway and across the Manhattan to Ebbets,” Stan told the cabbie.
“Okeydoke,” the cabbie said, putting the big car into gear.
They cruised onto the shorefront FDR Drive, went through the United Nations Tunnel, and where Pike Slip met the Lower Roadway crossed the Manhattan Bridge. The cab ran down Flatbush Avenue and through Prospect Park.
“Drop of us at Empire,” Stan told the cabbie. “We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“Got tickets to the game?”
“I’m rooting for the Bums, but they oughta dump that dump they gotta play in.”
“There’s hardly any parking, just a couple of lots, which is good for me, but not for nobody driving in. It seats maybe half of Yankee Stadium and the seats are bad. The aisles are narrow and the plumbing’s bad. On top of that, it looks like it could go whacked if there was ever a loud enough noise and fall down, especially that big grandstand.”
“The beer’s good,” Ezra said.
“The beer’s good,” the cabbie admitted.
The right field wall was plastered with advertisements for shoe polish, razor blades, and wristwatches. The biggest was the Schaefer Beer sign at the top of the scoreboard. It doubled as a gimmick for the official scorer to rule on hits and errors.
Sluggers like Joe Adcock, Stan Musial, and Willy Mays loved the ballpark, hitting the ball hard and over the fence in all directions. Joe Adcock hit four home runs one afternoon two years earlier, adding a double for good measure. Sal Maglie always told his fellow hurlers to “pitch Joe close and then low and away and he’ll never hit it.” The next day the starting Dodger pitcher started him off by launching a beanball and braining him. After that there was no need of low and away.
The Dodger southpaw who pitched to the hard-headed Milwaukee first baseman, once he recovered and was back in Brooklyn, wasn’t good at taking advice. He grooved his first pitch and Joe Adcock paid the Dodgers back by becoming the only ballplayer to ever hit a deep soaring disappearing speck in the sky over the left field roof. It landed with a crash, denting a passing car hood on Montgomery Avenue.
“Keep the change,” Stan said, paying the fare.
The man driving the suddenly dented car hood car stopped, got out, cursed up and down, and kicked the baseball into the nearest sewer.
“Goddamn kid game!”
Bedford Avenue between Sullivan Place and Montgomery Avenue was cordoned off, police cars angled across the intersections. The parking lot was roped off and empty, except for what looked like an armored car and a half dozen black Dodge Royal Lancers. The shops and bars on Sullivan were closed, their flat roofs dotted with policemen and men in suits. More men in suits littered the roof over the ballpark’s grandstand. Some more were scattered along both foul lines.
Stan Ezra Betty stood on the corner of Sullivan Place, looking down the backside of Ebbets Field.
“They’re going to open the fence there, to the right side of centerfield,” Stan said. “That way Ike can drive in, let everybody see him before he throws out the first pitch and takes his seat for the game. Let’s say around 12:30. Our man won’t be able to get near him here on the street, or from above, so it’s got to happen on the field or the stands.”
“What about under the field?” asked Betty.
“Under? What do you mean?” Stan asked
“Aren’t there tunnels under the field, or drainpipes, or anything like that?”
“I don’t know about tunnels, but storm drains, there have got to be for when it rains, to get the water off the field. If he’s planning on bursting out of the swamp and surprising everybody, that could maybe happen.”
“What if he just plants a bomb down there to blow the president up when he’s driving across the field?”
“How would he set it off? A timing device wouldn’t be any good. He wouldn’t have any way of knowing exactly when Ike is going to be at whatever exact spot on the field. A pressure plate mine, no good either. That’s why they’re always laid out in groups. There have been too many groundskeepers and players on the field for nobody to notice something or get accidentally blown up.”
“What if he is planning on being underneath Ike when he drives down center field and setting a bomb off? What if “Hail to the Chief” is the cue and when he hears it, he pulls the plug, and it all goes up in rockets? What if it’s just like Jackson Pollack, brainwashed to do something that’s curtains for him, but he does it anyway?”
“That might make sense,” Stan said as they turned the corner at the main entrance and walked up Franklin Street. “A suicide bomber can’t get close to the president, so he waits for the president to get close to him.”
“Jesus Christ!” Ezra exclaimed, looking up the street. “There’s our man.”
Stan snapped his head around.
“There, about two hundred feet away, just past the last pillar.”
Stan spotted Tony the Phil as he strolled up to a nondescript door behind the last colonnade and stuck a key into the lock, slipping into the ballpark.
“Goddamn it,” Stan swore as the three of them ran to the door. There wasn’t an outside knob or handle, just a lock. Ezra pounded on it. Nobody nothing not a thing came to the door.
“Goddamn it to hell.”
A scratching noise chirruped from a small mound of dirt between the sidewalk and outside wall of the ballpark near the base of a Johnny pump. The mound suddenly broke free and the head of a hamster-sized star-nosed mole poked up into the daylight. Its nose quivered, it looked up at Stan, and winked. It was gone in an instant.
“Did that thing wink at you?” Betty asked.
“The mole blinked at me, yes,” Stan said.
“I thought they were blind,” Ezra said.
“We’re the three blind mice,” Stan said.
“He’s gone underground, that’s where he is,” Betty said
“You stay out here,” Stan said to her. “You don’t have a ticket and won’t be able to get in, anyway. Find a phone booth. Get ahold of Karol and Bartek. When you get them tell them to get down here with a car, tell them to find a spot as close to the main entrance as they can. Stay with them and look for us.”
Ezra and Stan ran swiftly purposefully back down Franklin, past the twelve gilded ticket windows, through one of the twelve turnstiles, and into the buzzing marble rotunda of Ebbets Field.
Mr. Moto knew a straight cat when he saw one so when he saw Bumpy Williams stepping out of a cab and walking up to the house, he didn’t sweat it. He could see black and white and blue colors best. He wasn’t good with reds and greens. Bumpy looked like a blues man to him. Mr. Moto knew boneyard blues when he heard it.
Dottie was waiting on the inside stairs. When she saw Bumpy, she jumped up and barged through the door.
She was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers pinback button on her shirt, had Pee Wee Reese’s 1956 Topps baseball card in her hand, and a blue cap with Chief Wahoo inside a red wishbone “C” on top of her head.
“You got buck teeth on your head,” Bumpy said.
“Dad’s from Cleveland,” Dottie said. “He gave it to me. He said you have to stay true to your roots. I don’t let anybody say anything about it when I’m wearing it.”
“Yes, ma’am,’ Bumpy said, and pushed the brim down.
“I’m hungry,” Dottie said, looking up.
“So am I. How are you with waffles?”
“I love waffles.”
“Me too. Let’s go.”
When they drove past the Socony Mobil building, built that year at 42nd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, Dottie pointed out the window of the cab.
“It’s a shiny waffle building.”
The world’s first stainless steel skyscraper was sheathed in thousands of panels studded with pyramid designs. The architectural critic Lewis Mumford from Flushing, Queens, wrote that the building looked like it had the measles. He thought the ideal city was the medieval city. He didn’t say what living in a medieval city without indoor plumbing and running water and power at the push of a button might be like.
“You said the ballpark, right?” the hook-nosed cabbie asked, the toothpick in his mouth staying still as a crack in cement, stuck in between two close-set teeth.
“Close enough but drop us off at Flatbush and Lincoln.”
Childs Restaurant on the northwest corner was a two story building with a central fish window featuring an urn facing Flatbush Avenue. A red-faced grill cook was in the window flap-jacking.
“That’s where he’s going to make our waffles,” Bumpy said, swinging the front door open for Dottie. They sat in a booth. It was purple vinyl with an upside-down white triangle on the back rest. The table was pale green flecked with small white slashes.
“No need for a bill of fare,” Bumpy said to the waitress. “Two big plates of waffles, butter and syrup, joe for me and lemonade for the young lady.”
“I don’t want lemonade.” Dottie said.
“What do you want?”
“That’s the same as lemonade.”
“No, it’s not, it’s grapefruit, and it’s carbonated. And one more thing, please make mine a Belgian waffle.”
The waitress tiptoed away, smoothing her white apron, which matched her white collar and white trim around the sleeves. She looked like a maid in a big house.
“Well cut my legs off and call me Shorty if it isn’t Bumpy Williams,” a tall handsome more-or-less Negro man said stopping at their table.
Bumpy and Dottie looked up.
“If it ain’t my man Adam who still has never done nothing for me,” Bumpy said. “How are you?”
“Keeping the faith, baby, keeping the faith,” said Adam Clayton Powell.
“How’s Hazel?” Bumpy asked, looking the leggy lady standing next to his congressman up and down.
“My secretary,” Adam Powell said, nodding at the curves next to him.
“See her much?”
“Here and there,” he said.
His wife Hazel Scott had been summoned and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee six years earlier. She was a classical and jazz piano player and singer and hosted a variety show on TV. She denied “ever knowingly being connected with the Communist Party or any of its front organizations.” She admitted being associated with socialists, a group she said that “has hated Communists longer and more fiercely than any other.” When the Red Scare in Congress leaned on her, she shot back that they should try “democratic methods to eliminate a good many irresponsible charges.”
They didn’t like that and started huffing and puffing. Hazel lamented that entertainers were already “covered with the mud of slander and the filth of scandal” by congressional goons when they walked in trying to prove their loyalty to the United States.
Her TV show “The Hazel Scott Show” was cancelled the next week. She suffered a nervous breakdown the next year. The next three four years she played on and off with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, more often in Europe than the United States.
“I think she might be on her way to France, maybe for good,” Adam Powell said.
“Are you a Negro like Bumpy,” Dottie asked him, looking into his hazel eyes.
“No, honey, I’m a man who is part African, part German, and part American Indian.”
“What part of you is here?”
“The Bums part of me,” he laughed.
Dottie pointed to the button on her shirt.
“You and me sister.”
“I hear you came out for Ike,” Bumpy said.
“I did, and I’ve been taking a lot of heat for it, but I got some great seats.”
Bumpy could have told him to stay as far away from the president as possible but he didn’t. He wasn’t loose-lipped when it came to business. His job was to look out for Dottie, not for politicians, who were always looking out only for themselves. He looked and saw waffles coming their way.
“See you at the ballpark, then.”
“How’s that? One of your numbers come in?”
“No, that’s for chumps. Dottie here is going to be on the Happy Felton TV show before the game. I’m her escort.”
“Good for you, Dottie, and put a good word in for your congressman.”
“She lives in Hell’s Kitchen,” Bumpy said.
“Close enough,” the congressman said, and wrapping his arm around the waist of his secretary, walked to his table, where a table tent “Reserved” sign sat.
“Why did he want me to say something about him?” Dottie asked.
“He’s a politician, a Washington politician. He never spends his own money except by accident, so a good word free of charge on TV is like gold to him.”
“Oh, he’s a government man. Dad gets sour sometimes when anybody talks about the government.”
“Honey just be glad we aren’t getting all the government we’re paying for,” Bumpy said, and dug into his stack of waffles, topped with fried eggs and bacon. Dottie pushed butter into the pockets of her plate-sized Belgian waffle and poured Sleepy Hollow syrup on it, spreading it with her knife and licking the blade clean.
“Hey, don’t lick that off your knife, you’ll cut your tongue,” Bumpy said. “How are you going to be able to talk to Pee Wee if that happens?”
“Oh my gosh!” Dottie exclaimed, putting the knife down in a flash.
After their late breakfast they walked up Flatbush to Empire Blvd to Ebbets Field. The streets were full of cars and the sidewalks were full of fans. Vendors were everywhere. Scalpers were peddling tickets. The Mounted Police Unit was out in force, their horses leaving piles of shit behind them. The ballpark stood on one square block. It was surrounded on all sides by shops and apartments.
“Did you know Bugs Bunny was born down the left field foul line in Ebbets Field?” Bumpy asked Dottie.
“He was not! Was he? Who says so?”
“Warner Brothers says so, the outfit he works for. He was born there just before his first cartoon in 1940.”
“He was born on the field, out in the open?”
“That’s the way rabbits do it,” Bumpy said. “They build their nests out in the open, in plain sight, the last place anybody would expect, and that keeps them safe.”
“So, they are right there but nobody can see them?”
“That’s right, it’s like they’re invisible.”
“But Bugs always pops up out of a hole.”
“That’s just in the movies.”
The stadium was named after Charlie Ebbets, who started out as a ticket taker for the team and grew up to become its owner. He laid the foundation for the new diamond by buying land in secret starting in 1905, more than a thousand small parcels of it, finally accumulating enough ground to build the ballpark eight years later. Fans bought tickets at gilded ticket windows, went into the marble rotunda through gilded turnstiles, and if they looked up saw a colossal chandelier with twelve baseball bats holding twelve baseball look-a-like lamps.
Dottie flashed her Happy Felton pass at one of the turnstiles.
“Who’s he?” the ticket taker, flanked by a policeman, asked, nodding at Bumpy.
“That’s my Uncle Bumpy,” Dottie said.
“I work for Duluc Detective, and the boss asked me to watch his kid while she was here, seeing as she was going to be alone.”
“All right, just don’t let the TV camera see you. You aren’t any Jackie Robinson,” the policeman said.
“Yes, boss,” Bumpy said.
“That policeman sounded mean to you,” Dottie said as they walked towards the field.
“A happy raisin in the sun is a field of dreams, honey, a field of dreams.”
Happy Felton was happy to see them, especially since they were on time. He explained the skit, where Dottie would stand, where the camera and microphone would be. He showed her the certificate Pee Wee Reese would be handing her. “Hey, somebody roust Pee Wee, tell him we’re almost ready to go with the girl.” He told Dottie her time in the spotlight would last five minutes and to not be nervous.
“I’m not nervous,” she said. “I can’t wait to meet him.”
He was more not less what she thought he was going to be.
“You’re not a pee wee,” she said.
“Not me, kid,” he said.
Harold Henry Reese was five foot ten in his bare feet and pushing nearly 170-pounds. He played small ball, bunting, slashing singles, and stealing bases but he wasn’t a small man. He played the hole, shortstop, was the team captain, and wore number one on the back of his uniform shirt.
“He took charge out there in a way to help all of us, especially the pitchers. When Pee Wee told us where to play or gave some of us the devil, somehow it was easy to take. He just had a way about him of saying the right thing,”said Jackie Robinson, the team’s second baseman.
Pee Wee and Jackie were the aces in the hole, the men who plugged the gaps between the bags. Not many balls got by them. They played shoulder to shoulder turning double plays. They ignored the catcalls on the road. They made their stand ending innings.
“I like your button, but I don’t know about that cap,” said Pee Wee.
“My dad is from Cleveland.”
“Well, that makes it all right then. It seems to fit you A-OK.”
“I took a hot bath in it and wore it until it dried. Then I curved the bill and stuck it in one of my dad’s coffee mugs overnight. The next morning, he was mad about it, and made me wash it out, but it had this nice shape.”
Happy Felton introduced the baseball player and the stickball player to each other and to the TV audience.
“Your name is Dottie?”
“That’s my wife’s name. Not only that you look a lot like her.”
Dottie beamed, happy as could be.
“Would you sign my baseball card?”
“I sure will.”
When he did, he congratulated her on her ball skills, she said she was rooting heart and soul for the Dodgers, he presented her with an official Dodger’s Certificate of Achievement, she held it up for the camera, and he pulled a big marble out of his pants pocket, handing it to her.
“I played marbles when I was your age. This one is a shooter. The smaller ones we called ducks. You’ve heard about playing for keeps.”
“That’s what my dad always says to do.”
“That’s what you always do playing marbles, and baseball, and everything else. This one is yours to keep. You never know when it might come in handy.”
Her five minutes were over in the blink of an eye. Pee Wee Reese glided away, Happy Felton eased her to the side, and Bumpy waved for her to come with him. As they walked down the right field foul line Dottie looked toward the opposite dugout.
“Look, there’s dad,” Dottie said suddenly, pointing past Bumpy who was on the inside track. Stan and Ezra were in front of the third base home team dugout talking to a short thickset man smoking a short thick cigar. The man pointed down the left field line. Another man, who had been leaning over the dugout, waved and shouted something, and the cigar waggled him onto the field. The man stepped on the roof of the dugout and jumped down to the field. Stan Ezra Cigar Man and the jumper huddled, and then went jogging up the foul line.
“You stay here,” Bumpy said, starting to go around home plate. Dottie hesitated, but then ran straight across the field, cutting the corner in front of the pitcher’s mound.
“Oh hell, “Bumpy swore, and broke into a sprint.
Tommy Fitzgerald plunked down four cents for a copy of the Daily News. The headline read, “Maglie Opens Against Ford.” Underneath it was a smaller headline, “Ike Will Toss Out First Ball.”
“Two for the price of one,” Bulmer MacNeill said. “You got any action on who shaves the corner, Big Ike or Sal the Barber?”
“Ike is going to lob it down the heart of the plate and the Barber is going to be bringing the razor.”
Dwight Eisenhower was the mastermind of big band music, but Sal Maglie was the master of chin music. It didn’t do any good trying to challenge the Barber. He didn’t knock you down with high and inside just for the hell of it, just as well as looking at you. He did it for a reason. He did it to keep you from crowding the plate. He did it so you couldn’t shorten your swing.
Ike let on to Brooklyn Dodger catcher Roy Campanella that he was rooting for the Bums. When Campy told Sal, the hurler told him presidential votes of confidence weren’t going to do either of them any good once the game started.
“You set them up and I’ll deliver the goods,” he said.
Jimmy Jemail, The Daily News’ Inquiring Fotographer, asked New Yorkers, “Which interests you more, the World Series or the presidential election?”
It was one-sided hefty for the Series.
New York’s mayor Robert Wagner didn’t go to the opener, nor did Attorney General Jacob Javits, his Republican opponent in a tough Senate race. Senator Prescott Bush, grandfather of 10-year-old George W. Bush, who was in town to attack the mayor as a champion of Democratic segregationists in the South, brought his grandson. The boy was nuts for baseball. Adlai Stevenson was throwing out the first pitch the second game of the Series. He was in second place every which way.
Robert Moses didn’t bother going, even though the weather was ideal, in the mid-60s with moderate winds. He had better things to do, since he knew the Dodgers were done in New York City, whether they won the series or not. He spent the day at Jones Beach eating peanuts in the back seat of his limo.
The opera soloist Everett McCooey was going to belt out the National Anthem. Tommy and Bulmer had ringside seats. They got into the ballpark early, flashed their $10.50 lower box tickets, forked out for dogs and beer, and took their seats. Tommy was ignoring Bulmer’s burping when he overheard Stan and Max Ringolsby talking about the storm drain under the outfield and how to get there.
“I work up here on the field,” Max said. “Tony has been taking care of down there, since the beginning of the year. He was the only one who fit.”
“How do we get down there?” Stan asked.
“I don’t have time to show you,” Max said. “I could holler for somebody, if anybody is available. It isn’t any kind of day in day out here today, you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean, but we don’t have time. Just point the way.”
“Hey mister!” Tommy shouted across the top of the third base dugout. “I know the way.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m a pipe fitter, worked here last year. I know all the ins and outs of down there.”
“C’mon, we need you, it’s life and death.”
Tommy stepped on the roof of the dugout and vaulted onto the field. “What the hell,” Bulmer gaped. Tommy ran to the huddle. “Follow me,” he said.
They followed him up the third base foul line, through a door in the fence, through a door at the base of the stands, and through another door into a hallway. The walls were lined with insulated electrical cables.
They found the manhole leading down into the storm drain.
“It’s a straight shot to the main drain in center field,” Tommy said. “It’s like a cistern. Getting there is tight, though. You’re too big, believe me, even on your hands and knees,” looking at Stan. He nodded at Ezra. “Your buddy could do it.”
“He’s down there, the son-of-a-bitch,” Stan said.
“How do you know?” Ezra asked.
“Look at the scratches there on the cover, around those two holes.”
“I see them, fresh marks.”
“There’s got to be a manhole key right here somewhere,” Tommy said
They found it right away. Tommy stuck the key into the cover, straddled the manhole, and started to lift. He dropped it back in place. “Jesus, this thing is heavy.” He tried again, his back straight and knees bent. When he had it up half a foot, he swiveled it to the side. Stan looked down and then looked at Ezra.
“You’re going to have to go,” Stan said. “Between you and me you’re the one small enough.”
“If you start smelling rotten eggs, that will be methane. If you start coughing, or your eyes get watery or irritated, that will be more methane,” Tommy said. “Don’t light no matches.”
“You can’t turn around, no matter what, so be quick,” Stan said. “Do you have a sap with you, anything?”
“I’ve got a roll of dimes,” Ezra said. “I’ll try to buy him off.”
“He’ll need a flashlight,” Tommy said.
“I’ll get that,” Bumpy said.
“Where did you come from?” Stan asked.
“Followed the bouncing dot,” Bumpy said, pointing to Dottie behind him.
“The short guy with the big cigar, on the field, ask him for a light, fast.”
Bumpy went fast and was back fast with a Big Beam. Ezra went down the ladder of the manhole. Bumpy tossed the all-in-one lantern beacon flashlight down. Ezra turned in on and off, on and off, and gave Stan a thumbs up.
“Take a right and keep going,” Tommy told him. “Don’t take any branches. You’ll end up at the centerfield drain in about a hundred, hundred and fifty feet.”
“Get that rat out of there,” Stan said, on his hands and knees, peering down. “Be careful, yourself, not with him. Don’t get yourself blown up. Betty would never forgive me.”
Ezra flashed Stan a wry grin and, hunched over, disappeared into the dark. They saw the backside glow of the flashlight dim off. When it was dark again Stan stood up.
“Dottie, get the hell out of here, out of the ballpark.”
“What’s going on dad.”
“It’s the same bad guys who grabbed you. I think they might be trying to blow up the president when he gets here to throw out the first pitch.”
“What about you and Ezra?”
“Ezra went down into the sewer to try to stop him. Bumpy and I are going to wait here for when he brings the bomb man out.”
“I don’t want to go without you.”
“Betty’s outside with Karol and Bartek. Go find the car and wait for me there.”
“What if Ezra needs help? He’s all alone.”
“You heard me, go,” Stan snapped at her.
Dottie knew enough not to argue. She backed away, trudged off, and quickly slid behind a steel beam. Bumpy and Stan and Tommy lit cigarettes.
“You shouldn’t stay,” Stan said to Tommy.
“I’m on a streak,” Tommy said. “Better I stay and maybe bring you luck.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m the guy who landed that plane in town a couple of days ago and rolled it to the softest stop you ever saw. I won a nice wad of dough doing it, too, although I’ll probably have to shell some of it for the fine.”
“Hell man, I was there,” Bumpy exclaimed. “I didn’t see you do it, but the plane was blocking my subway stop and I had to hoof it up the street.”
“That was me,” Tommy said, grinning mischievously.
“I read about that,” Stan said. “The paper said the pilot was either no compare or lucky as a rabbit’s foot.”
“I don’t have a pilot’s license, so I guess there was some luck involved.”
“I’ll be damned,” Stan said.
Dottie saw her chance. The three men had their backs to the manhole. She tiptoed around behind them and quietly descended the ladder. At the bottom she turned right and feeling for the wall in the impenetrable dark, started after Ezra. The stone was cold and damp. She didn’t think about what she might or might not be able to do to help Ezra. She felt for the big marble Pee Wee Reese had given her. It was safe in her pocket.
She thought her eyes might adjust to the darkness, but they didn’t. It was pitch black and stayed pitch black. It was the same kind of dark she remembered when she was a little girl and her mother had hidden her in the back of a closet. She walked slowly carefully on the slime underfoot. She saw Ezra ahead. He was crouched on his haunches watching something she couldn’t see. His Big beam was off. When she tapped him on the shoulder, he pivoted with a blackjack in his hand. She recoiled as he stopped in mid-strike. He put a finger to his lips. She nodded OK.
Ezra turned back to what he had been looking at. The back of his neck was wet with sweat. Dottie looked over his shoulder. Ahead of them, in a small cavern, was a small man. He was looking up through a drainage grate knotted with grass. When he turned slightly to the side, she saw orange sticks strapped to the front of him.
Ezra suddenly sneezed and the small man whirled around, stabbing at them with a pocket flashlight.
“Who the fuck are you?” Tony the Phil asked, surprised and angry.
“The boss sent me,” Ezra said.
“What do you want?”
“Get you out of here.”
“I have to do something first.”
“It’s been called off.”
“The man with the lion,” Ezra said, taking a stab in the dark.
“No,” he said. “it’s a no go.”
When Ezra started to stand up, Tony the Phil reached for the detonator on his vest. Ezra stopped and put his hands up palms out. “Don’t,” he said.
“Don’t come any closer,” Tony said.
“All right, you’re the boss.”
Tony Ezra and Dottie heard clapping cheering and hollering start and swell above them. Ezra knew President Eisenhower must have come into view of the crowd. His limo would be coming through the centerfield fence any moment. In a minute after that the big organ would be striking up “Hail to the Chief” and the limo would be directly above them. When it was, it would be blast-off for all of them. He felt Dottie fumbling behind him. She was suddenly on her feet throwing her big marble, except it slipped out of her soggy hand. It hit the wall to the left of Tony the Phil, caromed, and hit him dead to rights in the temple. He went down like a shot.
“Hindoo!” Dottie whooped.
Ezra sprang up, jumped on top of Tony, and pinned the unconscious man’s arms to the ground with his knees. He looked at the detonator, a blast cap. He removed it, removed the vest from Tony, and carefully laid both to the side, as far away from each other as possible.
“Jesus Christ,” he finally exhaled.
“Is he breathing?” Dottie anxiously asked. Ezra bent over and checked.
“Yes,” he said.
Just then the Ebbets Field organ queen Glady Goodding broke into “Hail to the Chief.” She lived in a hotel around the corner from Madison Square Garden. On game days she rode the subway to the ballpark, with her fox terrier in her lap. He sat beside her at the organ. He stood up on his hind legs, surveying the field, when he heard the new song, wondering what all the excitement was about. The dog liked it when players made requests, but he hadn’t heard this much noise since the year before when the Bums won the whole ball of wax.
“They call me up or make signs,” Gladys explained. “Now take Red Barrett, the Boston pitcher. He likes the tune “Paper Doll.” The first time he wanted me to play it he kept moving his fingers like scissors, then making believe to rock a doll in his arm, until finally I caught on. Gene Hermanski likes polkas and mazurkas. Red Corriden, the Yankee coach who used to be with the Dodgers, has to have “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” And, of course, I always play something to do with Dixie when Dixie Walker makes a home run.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Ezra said.
He dragged Tony by his legs, his ankles tucked into Ezra’s armpits, his head bouncing all the way back. Dottie brought up the rear with the Big Beam, illuminating the way. When they got to the way out, Stan looked down on them.
“Got your man?” he asked.
“He’s right behind me, out cold.”
“And what are you doing down there?” Stan exploded, spying Dottie.
“I went to help Ezra.”
“She’s who took him down,” Ezra said.
“That’s right, with a marble.”
“Never mind about that now, let’s get him and us out of here.”
Bumpy and Tommy lifted Tony the Phil from below while Stan pulled him from the top. When they had him above ground, still out cold, Tommy found a two-wheel dual-handle hand cart and they trussed Tony to it. Once they were out of the ballpark Bumpy spotted Betty waving and they walked over to the car like hauling a man on a hand cart was all in a day’s work.
“Thanks flyboy,” Stan said to Tommy
“My pleasure,” Tommy said. “You’ll have to tell me what it was all about some day.”
Karol and Bartek had the trunk ready, and they loaded Tony into it. When they were done, they walked away. Bumpy went back into the ballpark, Stan’s ticket in his pocket, settling down to watch the game. The man sitting beside him asked, “What do you think, beg fella, are the Bums going to get it done?”
“Man, I don’t know what I’m thinking,” Bumpy said. “I ain’t no mind reader.”
Stan took the wheel, Betty beside him, with Ezra and Dottie in the back. Tony the Phil didn’t make a peep in in the trunk. The traffic was light as they drove to Warsaw Baking Company.
“My Pee Wee marble!” Dottie burst out. “I forgot it in the sewer. We’ve got to go back.”
Ezra reached into his pants pocket and pulled out the marble.
“Here you go, kid,” he said.
President Eisenhower threw out the first pitch of the World Series, Micky Mantle hit the first home run in the first inning, Jackie Robinson retaliated in the second inning, and Gil Hodges clobbered a three-run shot into the cheap seats in the third. When that happened, the Bums had all they needed. Sal Maglie settled down and pitched a complete game. By the end of the afternoon the Dodgers led the Yankees one game to none.
The next day the weather was more of the same, although no game was scheduled. Sal Maglie gave his upset stomach and sore shoulder a break. He had won the first game, and that is all that mattered to him.
“He scares you to death on the mound. He’s scowling and gnashing his teeth, and if you try to dig in on him, there goes your Adam’s apple. He’s gonna win if it kills you and him both,”said Danny Litwhiler, a veteran National League outfielder.
He was notorious for his determination and death stare, five o’clock shadow and hard heat. “I own the plate,” he said.
“When he’s pitching, Sal Maglie has a gaunt look, a grim expression, a stubble beard, a great curveball, and a high one that earned him the nickname the Barber,” Joe Durso wrote in The New York Times.
“He isn’t tough at all,” Sal’s wife Kay said. “He lets his beard grow before a game so that he’ll look fierce. I used to wonder what people were talking about when they said he scowled ferociously at the batters. Then I stayed home one day and watched him on TV. I hardly knew him.”
The sky was open for business on Friday, breezy, and in the low 60s. Don Larsen was going for the Yankees and Don Newcombe for the Dodgers. Larsen had come back from a bad 1955 and had a good 1956 season, striking out a career high, while Newcombe, from the Negro Leagues, had a great year. He posted marks of 27–7, 139 strikeouts, and a 3.06 ERA, with five shutouts and 18 complete games, He led the league in winning percentage. He was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player and was awarded the first-ever Cy Young Award.
In Brooklyn Smoky had washed waxed and gassed up the Pontiac Star Chief by the time Stan Ezra and Betty got to the garage. “I’ll need the special hose-down for when we bring her back,” Stan said. Smoky nodded. “It’ll get done, boss,” he said.
Karol and Bartek were waiting in the back lot of the Warsaw Baking Company. Ezra brought Dr. Robert Baird up from the basement, his hands handcuffed behind him, and pushed him into the back seat. “You keep your mouth shut or I will personally throw you into the East River, cuffs and all, understand?”
“I understand,” the psychiatrist said.
Karol and Bartek brought Tony de Marco upstairs. He was sporting two shiners and a goose egg on one side of his face but able to walk. His ribs on one side were bruised from when he fell in a heap after Dottie brained him. He had a concussion, although as long as he played it slow, keeping his head still, he was good to go. He had a bad headache, too, but not the same kind of headache he had all the earlier part of the year. They slid him into the back seat on the driver’s side. Ezra got in on the passenger side, pushing the shrink over, jabbing him with a sharp elbow. Betty sat up front with Stan.
“Idlewood first?” Stan asked.
“The sooner the better,” Ezra said.
Idlewood was the New York International Airport, although many still called it Idlewood. It was in Queens, built during the war on the marshlands of Jamaica Bay. A summer hotel had been torn down, a golf course levelled, and a landing strip called the Jamaica Sea-Airport removed. Idlewood had six runways, one terminal, and the highest volume of international air traffic of any airport globally.
When they pulled up to the terminal, Ezra hopped out, jerked Dr. Baird from the back seat, removed his handcuffs, and his hand on the psychiatrist’s elbow, guided him to the TWA counter. He handed the doctor a satchel.
“Your passport, your ticket, and some cash are in this,” he said. Stan and he had found the passport and $34,400.00 in cash in the psychiatrist’s apartment. There was one hundred dollars in the satchel.
“The plane is going to Paris. You can make your way from there to wherever you stashed your dough in Switzerland. Don’t come back to New York. You understand me?”
“I understand,” the psychiatrist said.
Ezra turned and marched off. He was in a foul frame of mind. He stopped at the exit and took a look back. Dr. Baird was still standing in line. Ezra watched as the line inched forward until the shrink got his pass and walked away to his gate.
Back in the car he gave Tony de Marco a thumb’s up. They drove to Grand Central Station. Ezra escorted Tony to the 20th Century Limited gate and handed him a small suitcase.
“There’s s ticket in there for LA, a change of clothes, and enough dough to get you on your feet and keep you there for a long time.” There was $31,300.00 in a manila envelope in the suitcase. The rest had gone to the Polish and Lithuanian boys, Ezra’s hospital bill, for expenses, the rain-day office fund, and a Friday night dinner. “Don’t come back to New York. Stay on the west coast. You never know, maybe they’ll get a baseball team out there some day.”
The ticket taker pinned a carnation on Tony’s jacket lapel. When he looked puzzled, the uniformed man said, “As always, carnations are given to men and perfume and flowers to women boarding the train.”
The red-carpet treatment all-Pullman train made stops at Grand Central Station for New York–area passengers and the Lasalle Street Station for Chicago-area passengers. From there it was on to Los Angeles. In 1945 diesel-electrics started replacing steam, and a new diesel-electric-powered trainset was commissioned. The replacement was inaugurated by Dwight Eisenhower in September 1948. The express train hauled passengers and mail at 60 MPH. Tony would be in LA on Monday.
Stan was listening to the ballgame, the second game of the World Series, on the Mutual Radio Network when Ezra slid back into the back seat. “It’s still the second inning and both the Don’s are done,” he told Ezra.
“What the hell? What did I miss? What’s the score?”
“Six six” Stan said.
“What happened to Newk?” The hurler was six foot four and from the batter’s box looked like the side of a mountain coming at you. He had a sharp curve and a Fourth of July fastball.
“Fizzled out,” Stan said.
“It’s going to be a long day,” Ezra said.
After Don Newcombe’s day abruptly ended, Yogi Berra hitting a towering grand slam off him, he stormed into the locker room, showered, changed, and stormed out of the ballpark. It was the bottom of the third inning. Cheering erupted when Don Bessent singled, driving in Gil Hodges to put the Bums up by one.
“How about that!” Mike “Buster” Brown, a parking-lot attendant, shouted, listening on a transistor radio, as Don Newcombe walked past.
“How about what?” Don grumbled,
“We’re back up, my man, back up.”
Don the Newk punched him in the gut and walked away.
“If they took a popularity poll, I sure as hell wouldn’t win,” he said, after charges were dropped. “Lots of guys don’t like my attitude. Can’t blame ’em. I don’t like it myself.”
They picked up Pete at the New York Library. He had signed out for a long lunch. They drove to Fine & Schapiro, on West 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues,
where they met Otis and Bumpy, who were already there. They got a table and ordered food. The matzoh balls, kreplach, knishes, and potato pancakes were all made fresh in the back by hand.
“What do you know?” Stan asked Pete halfway through lunch.
“They cleaned it up that night, all the TNT and nitro.”
“There was enough cached into a niche right there next to the grate to blow half the ballpark to kingdom come.”
“Jesus!” Ezra exclaimed.
“What was it all about?” Stan asked. “Why try to kill the president?”
“Nobody is sure, although they’re almost certain neither the Cosa Nostra nor the Communists had anything to do with it.”
“If it wasn’t them, who was it?”
“Eisenhower has been planning on making a major policy speech after he’s elected, warning about what he calls the military-industrial complex. He seems to want to try slowing down the arms race.”
“So, what does that have to with it?”
“There are hundreds of millions of dollars involved, what with the Pentagon, manufacturers, arms merchants, big-league corporations and tough customers. There is some thought behind the scenes that they might have had something to do with it.”
“The hell you say,” Stan said.
“I kept Duluc Detective out of it after I called, after you asked me to get in touch with my Federal friend. He asked me how I knew, but I told him that was out of bounds. He explained it as an anonymous tip. Going forward, I suggest forgetting all about this, don’t talk to anybody outside of yourselves about it. Don’t keep anything in writing. It could be dangerous. I mean, if they thought they could kill a president, they won’t give a thought about killing you.”
They sat in silence while Betty ordered coffee and dessert. The men had hamantaschen and babka cheesecake, while Betty had a black cherry soda ice cream float. When they were done Bumpy and Otis went the way they had come, Ezra and Betty went back to the office to search and destroy, and Stan went home. He called Vicki and sat Dottie down when she came home from school.
“Have you told anybody about Wednesday?” he asked.
“You said not to.”
“Is it something I should not ever talk about?”
“I called Vicki and made reservations at the Tavern in the Green. Are you up for that?”
That summer, as part of what he said were improvements in Central Park, Robert Moses tried to asphalt in a parking lot beside the eating place. Mothers who picnicked with their children at a wooded hollow at the site of the proposed lot complained, but Moses approved destruction of the hollow, anyway. Work started in the middle of the night one night but was stopped after threats of a lawsuit. The master builder went home and sulked.
There was a dance floor and nightly music at the restaurant. An outdoor patio offered dining al fresco. Trees around the restaurant were wrapped in twinkling lights. The Elm Tree Room was built around an elm. The food was toothsome.
Mr. Moto looked up from the windowsill where he was catnapping when Dottie jumped to her feet. His ears perked when he heard food was in the mix. He settled down, though, knowing he wouldn’t be invited.
“I’m calling a cab, so speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“I am ready, yay!” Dottie said high-spirited. “I could eat a horse.”